Black man suing police department for $700,000 over mistaken identity arrest that left him with broken arm

Antonio Arnelo Smith is suing after a city police officer grappled him from behind and slammed him to the ground

Graig Graziosi
Wednesday 24 June 2020 22:52 BST
Black man mistaken by police as a criminal sues department over use of excessive force

A 46-year-old black man in Georgia who claims police officers used excessive force while wrongfully arresting him has sued the Valdosta Police Department.

Antonio Arnelo Smith is suing the department for $700,000 after a city police officer grappled him from behind and slammed him to the ground. Officers said they were "investigating suspicious activity" and mistook Mr Smith as a suspect.

The lawsuit also demands a jury trial.

According to the Valdosta Daily Times, the lawsuit names Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, members of the city council, the city's Police Chief Leslie Manahan and three officers involved in the arrest as defendants.

Officers were responding to a report of panhandling outside a pharmacy. According to the lawsuit, officers responding to the call made contact with a man near the pharmacy and ran his information. They found the man had an outstanding warrant and arrested him.

Once that man was in custody, the officer told a colleague - who had just arrived - to search near the pharmacy for another man who had allegedly been asking customers for money. The officer wanted to find the man to see if the pharmacy wanted to bring trespassing charges against him.

Despite not having a description of the man, the officer went searching for a suspect, and found Mr Smith walking nearby.

Bodycam footage, acquired by the Valdosta Daily Times, provided insight into the incident.

On the video, an officer approaches Mr Smith claiming he was investigating "suspicious activity" related to the pharmacy. Mr Smith defends himself, explaining that while he had been in the pharmacy, he was waiting for his sister to wire him money. Mr Smith insists that he is innocent, that the staff at the pharmacy know who he is and that nearby security cameras would prove he hadn't done anything illegal.

The officer asks for identification and Mr Smith hands over his ID. As the exchange is taking place, another officer approaches Mr Smith from behind and grabs his arm. As Mr Smith reacts, the officer puts him in a bear hug. Mr Smith cries out that he hasn't done anything and the officer holding him tells him to put his arms behind his back. After the third time asking Mr Smith to do so, the officer body slams Mr Smith face-first into the ground. Mr Smith's arm breaks as a result, and the police handcuff him.

Once the police realise Mr Smith has been injured - he cries from pain in the video - the officers take the handcuffs off. The officers then realise that the suspect they were searching for had already been arrested, and that they'd attacked Mr Smith in error.

The officers eventually help Mr Smith with his injuries. He refuses medical attention and is allowed to leave the scene.

Following the encounter, Mr Smith went to hospital, was fitted with a sling and told he'd have to seek physical therapy to recover from his injury.

According to the statement given by the responding officers, Mr Smith was "standing with a 'bladed' stance" while "arguing or debating with" them.

"Based on what I observed and believing this person to have a warrant for his arrest, I grasped his right wrist. I felt Smith tense up and begin to pull away from me. At that time, I wrapped my arms around Smith in a 'bear hug'," the sergeant who slammed Mr Smith wrote in his report.

The sergeant wrote in his report that Mr Smith didn't comply with his orders to put his arms behind his back, so the officer pulled him "off-balance and rolled him to the ground to gain control of him in anticipation of a warrant arrest."

Regarding the injury, the sergeant notes he was "unsure how Smith's injury occurred, whether he had placed his arm out to the side or between us."

Attorney Nathaniel Haugabrook, Mr Smith's lawyer, said he believes it is a civil rights case. He said the officers violated Mr Smith's civil rights to "be free from an unlawful arrest, unlawful detention and all of the other rights that goes along with us being citizens."

The lawsuit claims there was no reason for police to believe Mr Smith had committed a crime or that he had any intention of committing a crime, and that the sergeant's use of a bear hug was "unnecessary and illegal" and indicative of "malice and reckless indifference."

The city of Valdosta issued a statement regarding the matter on Monday.

"The City of Valdosta and the Valdosta Police Department takes any report of any injury to a citizen seriously," the statement said. "Although there was no complaint filed with VPD, once the shift supervisor was notified, it prompted the review process of the incident by the officer's supervisor, patrol bureau commander, Internal Affairs Division and chief of police."

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