SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

February 23, 2013

Judge tosses suit vs. Peabody police

Ruling: Rights of man who died in custody not violated

BY JULIE MANGANIS
STAFF WRITER

---- — PEABODY — A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by the daughter of a man who died in police custody nearly five years ago, finding that while Peabody police did not follow a requirement to seek a bed in a treatment facility for the man, they did not intentionally violate his civil rights or the law.

John Lucia was 40 and a chronic alcohol user who had been put into protective custody for his own safety on the night of April 26, 2008, along with another man, Roland Gregoire, after the men were found staggering in the road and causing a disturbance.

The following morning, at around 7 a.m., Lucia was found dead in a Peabody police cell during a periodic check.

An autopsy later concluded that Lucia had ingested not only alcohol but methadone, opiates and cocaine in the period before his death, which was blamed on “acute and chronic substance abuse.”

In 2010 his daughter, Katelyn, filed suit over her father’s death, saying police violated his civil rights by failing to follow a state law that required them to contact treatment facilities to determine whether there was a spot for him. The suit also sought damages for negligence. The lawsuit named not only the city but the police department, and individuals including the then-mayor, the police chief, and four Peabody police officers.

The case was eventually moved from Salem Superior Court to U.S. District Court in Boston, because of the federal civil rights claims.

Late last month, Judge Dennis Saylor granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Peabody and all of the individuals named in the suit, dismissing the lawsuit.

In a lengthy, 25-page decision, Saylor found that while ideally, police should have called local “detox” facilities, there’s no evidence that a bed would have been available.

Complicating matters was the fact that while he was in the cell, shortly after his booking process had started, Lucia fell asleep.

“There is no evidence that Lucia asked to be taken home, or for that matter protested his continued detention,” Saylor wrote, rejecting the lawsuit’s claims that he was held in violation of his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable detention.

“It is therefore doubtful that he was being held against his will. Furthermore, it hardly seems sensible to conclude that the police — having failed to contact a treatment facility — became obligated at that point by the United States Constitution to arouse Lucia and put him back out on the street.”

“Put another way, Lucia’s continued detention was not entirely unreasonable under the circumstances,” the judge concluded.

The judge also noted that the officers, during depositions, had testified that to their knowledge, no one had ever been taken from protective custody to a treatment program, and an official at the Center for Addictive Behaviors (CAB) who was deposed also could not recall any instance where they admitted someone who was in protective custody.

The judge also rejected claims that the officers had shown “deliberate indifference” to Lucia’s well being, finding that they did not know he had taken drugs that night.

While Lucia’s daughter contended through her attorneys that police were “willfully blind” to the elevated risk Lucia faced because of his drug use, the judge found that Lucia, who was conscious and talking when he was taken into custody, did not mention his drug use.

“The officers assumed, not unreasonably, that he was drunk and needed to sleep it off,” Saylor wrote, citing Lucia’s long prior history of protective custody detentions for alcohol use and more than 20 prior involvements with officers because of alcohol intoxication.

The judge also found that neither the city nor its officials could be liable for not training the officers to call around for a treatment bed, because while there was no training that specifically dealt with the situation, the policy was included in the police department manual.

“Such a method of training, while perhaps not an ideal practice, does not constitute deliberate indifference to the constitutional rights of those in protective custody,” the judge wrote.

Chief Robert Champagne testified in a deposition that he believed the officers were following the policy of calling around for a bed; when he learned that they were apparently not doing so, he issued an order that further training take place.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.