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US Supreme Court review sought in Weber County Jail excessive force suit

By Mark Shenefelt - | Sep 22, 2022

BEN DORGER, Standard-Examiner file photo

A holding cell inside Weber County Jail on Monday, Sept. 9, 2019.

OGDEN — The U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to hear the case of a man who alleged that Weber County Jail deputies used excessive force against him after his arrest on suspicion of DUI.

Attorney Gregory Stevens, who represents Hyrum James Geddes, said Thursday he plans to seek a writ of certiorari from the high court, a request for consideration of lower-court decisions that went against Geddes.

The case stems from a Utah Highway Patrol trooper’s arrest of Geddes on July 16, 2017. The trooper took the arrestee to the Weber County Jail, where an incident between Geddes and four corrections officers ensued in a holding cell.

Geddes, handcuffed, was told to remove his boots and did not comply, according to the court record. In its defense against a civil suit filed by Geddes in 2018, the county said Geddes’ boots needed to come off because he could have had drugs or weapons hidden in them. Jailers testified Geddes refused to remove his boots and resisted and scuffled with them as they tried to get the boots off. Geddes testified he couldn’t take off the boots because he was handcuffed and that the jailers had threatened and attacked him.

The suit alleged that deputies took Geddes to the floor, striking his head on concrete, and held him with a knee to his neck. The suit seeks more than $2 million in damages for alleged use of excessive force.

But U.S. District Judge Howard Nielson Jr. ruled in August 2020 that Geddes claimed a civil rights violation under the wrong constitutional provisions. Attorney Stevens claimed 14th Amendment violations, but Nielson said the case should have been argued under the Fourth Amendment and therefore he need not address the merits of the claim.

On appeal, Stevens argued that the case could be considered under either amendment. In a strongly worded majority opinion, a three-member panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that argument on a 2-1 decision two months ago. Stevens next asked the full 10th Circuit to consider the case, but it declined. Stevens now has 90 days to petition the Supreme Court to take the case.

In a dissenting opinion of the three-judge panel, Judge Robert Bacharach said the merits of Geddes’ case should be heard, citing previous cases where appellate courts had allowed suits to proceed even though a plaintiff may have cited the wrong constitutional amendment.

Bacharach said his analysis concludes that the deputies did violate Geddes’ rights with the use of excessive force. The judge said Stevens correctly pointed to 10th Circuit precedent “that had prohibited officers from using force against an arrestee who’d already been subdued or continuing to apply pressure to a suspect’s back after he’d already been restrained.”

Court records said Geddes was stopped for speeding, suspected DUI and carrying a dangerous weapon, with two rifles found in his vehicle.

“Little force is appropriate when jailers are confronted by someone suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors,” Bacharach said, adding that Geddes did not pose an immediate threat to anyone’s safety.

“Geddes was handcuffed, and he faced his cell wall with his hands behind his back while surrounded by four jailers. It is difficult to imagine that he could have harmed the jailers or anyone else from this position,” the judge said.

The county argued that Geddes was not seriously injured, but Bacharach noted that Geddes testified he suffered a head injury and continued to feel its effects. A judge or jury could reasonably regard the head injury as serious, the judge said.

Regarding the restraint, the judge said precedent clearly established “that putting substantial or significant pressure on a suspect’s back while that suspect is in a face-down prone position after being subdued and/or incapacitated constitutes excessive force.” The jailer kept his knee on the back of Geddes’ neck even after deputies pulled off his boots, the judge noted.

Bacharach said he concluded that the deputies were not entitled to qualified immunity, which shields government employees from liability in civil suits.

Efforts to reach Frank Mylar, the attorney defending the county in the case, were not immediately successful.

In the DUI case, Geddes, now 38, of Arizona, eventually pleaded guilty in Ogden Justice Court to a reduced misdemeanor charge of impaired driving and was sentenced to a suspended 180-day jail sentence.

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