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Family files federal lawsuit against sheriff’s officials after son Jonathan Sanford’s 2020 death
Dawson County Detention Center

Thirteen months after the sheriff’s office and county received a letter about a forthcoming multimillion-dollar wrongful death lawsuit, attorneys filed against several law enforcement officials on behalf of the family of an 18-year-old man found dead at the Dawson County Detention Center in 2020.

Attorneys Sean Park and Andrew Richman filed the lawsuit on April 22 on behalf of plaintiffs and parents Jerry Sanford and Stephanie McClure. Their son, Jonathan Sanford, was found deceased at the county jail the morning of June 2, 2020 following his arrest on a narcotics and DUI charge. 

This lawsuit follows an investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation which deemed Sanford’s death accidental and an independent investigation by the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The plaintiffs are asking for damages related to Sanford’s pain and suffering as well as special damages for medical, funeral and other expenses like attorney’s fees. Neither their attorneys or the one for DCSO Sheriff Jeff Johnson, Joey Homans, have provided comment to DCN as of online publication.

Jonathan Sanford lawsuit

Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson is named as a defendant, along with two jail supervisors and six other deputies.The litigation, filed in Gainesville’s U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, follows an independent investigation by the family’s attorneys.

It alleges Sanford’s wrongful death on the basis of the defendants violating the teen’s civil rights under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and state and federal law. Specifically, the lawsuit accuses the defendants of negligence, having or providing insufficient training to recognize and respond to medical emergencies and failing to enforce policies leading up to the teen’s 2020 death. 

Deputies are alleged to have ignored various signs of Sanford’s intoxication, including but not limited to slurred speech, swaying on his feet and profuse sweating. The deputy conducting Sanford’s traffic stop supposedly left blank answers on a required pre-booking form about whether the teen was suicidal or had those tendencies, if he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs or if he had any known medical conditions. 

The two other deputies involved in either questioning or transporting Sanford to jail allegedly didn’t supplement answers for those blank questions or raise concerns. Deputies likewise failed to conduct any pre-booking medical screening or provide care, but the teen was submitted to both a pat-down and strip search. 

Likewise, the lawsuit alleged that supervisors were not alerted when Sanford pressed his head against the glass of his cell door twice around 8:15 p.m. and 10 or so minutes later, a violation of the DCSO policy to report when arrestees or inmates could be at risk of harming themselves. 

At one point, the teen was sweating so much that he apparently left sweat marks on the glass door window. 

Around 10:30 p.m., one of the defendants saw Sanford laying face down and snoring on a mat. Then a half-hour later, that deputy pointed out the inmate’s loud snoring to a colleague and co-defendant, who supposedly dismissed the observation. 

“During that time, he was left alone to deteriorate into unconsciousness face down on a cement floor in a holding cell,” the lawsuit said. “Defendants heard him making gurgling and odd snoring sounds at points during the night, yet completely ignored him for nearly 8 hours. No one ever checked on him during that time to determine his condition or verify that he was still breathing, despite obvious signs and symptoms of a serious medical need.”

During the shift change at about 6:30 a.m. on June 2, the same deputy who noted Sanford’s snoring the previous night asked an incoming booking supervisor to check on the teen, citing his high intoxication and saying that he hadn’t been formally booked or medically screened yet. 

The deputy checking found Sanford unresponsive in his cell. He was determined to have died alone sometime during the night of June 1 and early morning hours of June 2. (This deputy has not been named as a defendant in the lawsuit.)

Sanford did not receive medical treatment at any point, from the time of his traffic stop until his death, claim the lawsuit. There was a health care worker there who was never alerted about his medical condition. He was not allowed to make a phone call since he wasn’t fully booked into custody, nor was he allowed to see a judge. 

Alleged inaction

The lawsuit claimed DCSO’s custom was to routinely ignore a non-discretionary or mandatory order to provide medical pre-screening to all new inmates. It said DCSO’s pattern and practice was to postpone full medical screening until after an inmate was fully booked, which could take between 12-72 hours. 

So unless that person’s pre-screening form indicated a need for medical attention, a recently-arrived arrestee or inmate could not call relatives to inform them of their location. Relatives also couldn’t alert jail staff to possible medical or mental health needs. 

Furthermore, DCSO’s policy was that a person not be booked while intoxicated or presenting with a serious illness or injury. That meant inmates like Sanford who didn’t go through the pre-screening process “would be at all times in danger of having a serious emergent medical need that was neither documented, nor treated.”

The jail’s posture on medical screening supposedly flouted guidance from The United States National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), which establishes standards for health services in correctional facilities and provides certifications and accreditations to that end. 

NCCHC literature, according to the lawsuit, mustn’t be confused with discretional medical screening done after booking. Anyone who is either semi or unconscious, bleeding, mentally unstable, severely intoxicated, showing symptoms of substance withdrawal or otherwise in need of medical attention should immediately be referred for care and clearance in a medical facility. 

The lawsuit explained that by not doing so, the detention center “skipped the most basic inquiry of an inmate’s medical needs or conditions…despite knowing that 85 percent of arrestees processed into the [Dawson County] Detention Center were for drug-related offenses or were subjects taking medications prescribed by a physician.” 

During Sanford’s 12 hours in custody, his parents called to find him and were told he wasn’t at the detention center. 

Also alleged were jailers’ failure to follow policies that required them to provide an inmate necessary medical attention and to periodically monitor him in the cell and at 15-minute intervals as an “at-risk” inmate, given his behavior.

These factors amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” the lawsuit stated. 

A GBI toxicology report determined that Sanford died due to a combined drug intoxication of methamphetamine and morphine, as referenced in the lawsuit and DCN’s March 2021 article.

Previously, DCN reported protestors’ claims that Sanford was not checked for 13 hours. To clarify, the time from the teen’s June 1 arrest to his being discovered was roughly 12 hours, and he was only estimated to have been unchecked for about eight hours.  

The deputies’ failures were due “in substantial part” to deficient jail and DCSO policies and defendants’ failures to follow specific policies. The two supervising deputies, as well as Sheriff Johnson, were aware of the booking-related delays of 12-72 hours. However, by their alleged failure to correct the deficiencies related to incomplete pre-booking forms or lack of medical screening or care, they unfortunately contributed to a “culture of conscious and deliberate indifference.”

The lawsuit quoted an email sent on an unspecified date from defendant Lt. Theresa Kirby, the jail administrator. She noted that deputies were not properly filling out the pre-screening form, referring to it as the “only method” by which jail personnel could identify either possible reasons not to accept the inmate, have a jail nurse come in after hours to assess a person and/or be aware of substances the inmate is suspected of ingesting in case of an emergency “such as overdose or alcohol withdrawals.”

Two months prior to Sanford’s death, defendant Cpt. David Lingerfelt sent out an email “reminding deputies that all inmates need a screening form completed ‘unless they were getting out right away.’”

The plaintiffs’ attorneys filed an open records request for the pre-screening forms for the 90 days surrounding Sanford’s death. Of the resulting 77, more than half were blank or incomplete. No disciplinary action was taken against deputies for failing to complete paperwork for arrestees or detainees. 

After Sanford’s death, memos went out within DCSO reaffirming that without a properly-completed pre-booking form, inmates wouldn’t be accepted. Kirby added more medical screening questions to the paperwork during that time.

Similarly, the lawsuit alleged that Johnson directed the two supervisors to understaff the jail with fewer deputies and not have those DCSO employees trained to adequately respond to overdose warning signs and when to alert for medical care.

The lawsuit also alleged Sheriff Johnson failed to conduct annual review meetings to go over the office’s rule compliance and update or add policies and training to keep up with the standards of care.

Amidst a national opioid crisis and ongoing local narcotics issue in Dawson County, this litigation also claims that Johnson, Lingerfelt and Kirby failed to implement policies around use of naloxone or Narcan, training deputies to identify someone who may need the drug to stop an overdose and teach deputies how to administer it. 

The lawsuit asserts that these nine defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity, a legal defense that’s historically been used to protect law enforcement officials from civil rights lawsuits. At the end of March, New Jersey’s Supreme Court recently ruled against two policemen and agreed with a lower court decision that said the officers were not covered by that legal defense. 

In this case, the legal document explained that DCSO’s own rules require them to provide a certain level of medical care and said the defendants would only be afforded immunity if they were performing “discretionary actions.” Furthermore, even if the deputies’ decisions not to provide medical care were deemed discretionary, the lawsuit states their conduct “violates clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable official in Defendants’ shoes would have known.”

DCN will continue to follow this story.