LARGO — It wasn’t just misconduct by a single deputy that led to a painful broken arm for a woman who was booked into the Pinellas County jail.
A civil rights lawsuit filed in federal court this month also blames training deficiencies at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office for the encounter between former Deputy Amy Gee and 54-year-old Marie Butler, who was arrested in January for disorderly intoxication.
The suit points to an internal investigation in which some deputies who saw or reviewed video of Gee choking and slamming a handcuffed Butler to the ground said the use of force was reasonable and the contact with Butler’s neck inadvertent. Yet, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri fired Gee in April for violating agency policy.
Butler’s “Constitutional rights were in fact violated, so she certainly has a suit against Deputy Gee," said Todd Hoover, one of her attorneys, “and as we looked into it, we felt that she (Gee) just wasn’t trained. It was not a malicious act.”
The suit comes after a string of Pinellas detention deputies had been disciplined for mistreating inmates, from a deputy who hit an inmate in a wheelchair to two others who taped “derogatory and demeaning” signs on the backs of inmates. Those cases resulted in three deputies being fired, two getting hefty suspensions and one who resigned while under investigation.
The sheriff denied that there are any problems with his agency’s training or policy. He added that civil rights lawsuits dealing with police practices, such as this one, are typically dismissed.
“Anyone with $450 and a pen can file whatever they want," Gualtieri said of the lawsuit. "It’s unfortunate and sad when people don’t follow the procedures and follow the law and follow the training they receive. These things happen, and we need to take the effective action when they do, and that’s what I did here.”
The sheriff also cautioned against relying on the lawsuit’s characterization of the internal investigation into Gee, saying quotes could be used out of context, although he didn’t cite any examples. He said he’d have to look closer at the interviews with deputies before commenting further.
Gee could not be reached for comment.
A Pinellas sergeant arrested Butler the night of Jan. 8 after neighbors called in a disturbance in Largo. Butler was in a fight with her husband and yelling profanities, the sergeant wrote in the arrest report. Butler said she’d been drinking rum all night.
The sergeant gave her “ample opportunities” to settle down, he wrote, but she continued. He arrested her on a disorderly intoxication charge, a second-degree misdemeanor, or, according to the lawsuit, “the least serious category of criminal offense under Florida law." She was taken to the county jail.
The lawsuit spells out what happened next:
Butler, handcuffed, was taken to the jail intake area, where prisoners are processed. It was swarming with deputies, including Gee, who was holding Butler by her right arm. While standing at the counter, Butler lost her balance and “swayed very slowly, and slightly to her left," the suit says. The deputy pulled Butler back toward her, causing Butler to lose her balance again.
Gee then reached toward Butler’s chest and “inadvertently” placed her right hand on Butler’s neck. The deputy moved her feet behind Butler, turned her around and pushed her backward, tripping her. Butler, with no way of bracing her fall, fell to the floor.
“The impact completely fractured Ms. Butler’s upper left arm,” the lawsuit said. “The sound of the break was audible, and she cried out in pain.”
Then, Gee lifted Butler off the floor by her injured arm, "subjecting her to additional, excruciating pain.” Butler was taken to Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, where a doctor diagnosed her with a fractured humerus, the long bone between the elbow and shoulder. Prosecutors dropped her charge the next month.
The lawsuit emphasizes that none of the deputies who witnessed the encounter filed a complaint. The internal investigation was instead triggered by a complaint from Butler’s husband, according to the investigative file.
A lieutenant wrote in an incident report that the use of force was “reasonable and necessary" and that Gee’s contact with Butler’s neck was unintentional. A sergeant wrote in the same report that he agreed that the proper amount of force was used. Several deputies testified to internal investigators that Gee was professional and calm through the encounter and, afterward, was upset because it was her first use of force on the job, according to the file.
Gee, who was hired in February 2014, at first said her actions were appropriate. But in a later interview, she said they were unreasonable, the suit said. Gualtieri fired her on April 5.
As Hoover started looking into the internal investigation, he was troubled that other deputies didn’t see a problem with Gee’s conduct. Hoover made a public records request for use-force incidents in the jail intake area that resulted in trips to the hospital.
He cited three examples in the suit, as required to establish a legal basis that a problem is systemic rather than isolated. Two from 2017 involved women who were taken to the jail for substance abuse evaluations under Florida’s Marchman Act. The third was a man booked in a few weeks before Butler on a charge of criminal mischief. All three ended up injured at Northside.
The sheriff pointed out that the suit doesn’t say whether the uses of force in those examples were improper. Hoover said he couldn’t recall but that the details will be fleshed out as the lawsuit continues.
Gee’s termination came three months after Gualtieri fired Aaron Hull in January, a deputy who antagonized and struck an inmate in a wheelchair.
In April, Gualtieri fired and arrested a deputy who kicked an inmate and forced him to do push-ups. A deputy who didn’t intervene or report that incident resigned while under investigation in May.
In July, deputies Willie Jordan Jr. and Kenneth Rowe were handed down 240-hour suspensions after they taped degrading signs to the backs of inmates.
“We have the procedural safeguards in place,” the sheriff said at the time. “You can’t address stupid. This is just stupid."