Court Watch

Shorewood Sued Over Inmate’s Suicide

Suit alleges unlawful detention, wrongful death of mentally ill man.

By , Wisconsin Justice Initiative - Aug 12th, 2019 04:12 pm
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Crime Scene Tape. (CC0 Public Domain)

Crime Scene Tape. (CC0 Public Domain)

A 39-year-old man hung himself in the Shorewood jail after police detained him without reason, searched him improperly, locked him in a cell alone despite knowing he suffered from mental illness,  and failed to check on him in a timely manner, according to a Federal Court lawsuit filed Friday.

The suit was filed by the son and estate of Jonah Marciniak, who died on Aug. 21, 2016. Izariah Jump, Marciniak’s son, was 16 years old at the time.

The suit alleges false arrest and unlawful detention, unreasonable search, deprivation of due process, failure to provide medical care, failure to protect from self-harm, and wrongful death.

According to the suit:

Shorewood police responded to a Marciniak drug overdose on Aug. 12, 2016. Marciniak told them then that he suffered from depression. The next day, his roommate, Eric Harper, told police that Marciniak had overdosed and attempted suicide previously and suffered from several kinds of mental illness, including depression, anxiety and bi-polar disorders.

Two days later, Harper fell out of a fourth-floor window. When police responded, they tried to gain access to the apartment that Harper fell from so they could check on the welfare of anyone inside. They rang the buzzer and pounded on the door but received no response. The North Shore Fire Department eventually gained access.

Two defendants in the suit, Police Officers Cody J. Smith and Nicolas Taraboi found Marciniak naked, face down on a bed after a “loud search” of the rest of the apartment. Smith also had responded to the drug overdose days earlier.

“Jonah had very shallow breaths and did not respond to the SPD police officers’ multiple attempts to wake him,” the suit says. “The SPD police officers screamed commands at Jonah, but there were no movements from him.”

Smith recognized Marciniak when they rolled him onto his back, according to the suit.

“It was obvious to all present that Jonah was impaired,” the suit says.

Taraboi thought Marciniak may have been using heroin because of his pupil size. Marciniak finally began to wake up, but was slow and lethargic, the suit says.

The officers asked the Fire Department to evaluate him and Smith contacted Police Lt. Thomas Liebenthal for direction.

“Without either reasonable suspicion or probable cause to believe that Jonah had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime, Defendant Liebenthal ordered Defendant Smith to take Jonah into police custody,” the suit says.

The department already had been informed by a witness that Harper fell out of the window by himself and had not been pushed by anyone.

The Fire Department had not cleared Marciniak medically, something Smith failed to ascertain before taking him into custody, the suit says.

Marciniak was handcuffed and put into the back of a squad car.

“No SPD police officer read Jonah his Miranda rights, and no SPD police officer told Jonah why he was under arrest or was being detained,” the suit says. Marciniak appeared confused on the way to the police station.

“Defendant Taraboi, acknowledging that there was no probable cause for arrest, told Jonah that he was not under arrest but instead was being detained,” the suit says.

Marciniak had a hard time walking and had to be helped to the station. He was wearing shorts but not underwear and the shorts kept falling down, exposing his genitals and buttocks to the officers including a female officer, the suit says. Marciniak did not react to that exposure, “further evidencing Jonah’s physical and mental impairment to the defendants,” the suit says.

Taraboi and two UW-Milwaukee police officers took Marciniak to an interview room, but did not turn on the available video equipment.

“Despite telling Jonah that he was not under arrest but was being detained, and despite lacking any reasonable suspicion to search Jonah, Defendant Taraboi and the two UWM police officers searched Jonah inside the interview room,” the suit says.

Meanwhile, Marciniak’s shorts kept falling down and he still failed to react.

Taraboi and Smith locked Marciniak in a cell alone and gave him a blanket.

Taraboi filled out a booking sheet for Marciniak.

“Confirming the fact that there was no basis to arrest and/or detain Jonah, there is nothing written on the SPD Booking Sheet in the section reserved for ‘charges/reason for confinement,’ ” the suit says.

Smith filled out a health screening form for Marciniak, but failed to fully answer key questions.

“The question asking whether Jonah had prior psychiatric treatment is checked ‘yes,’ but the question asking for an explanation of the psychiatric treatment is not answered,” the suit says. “In the box on the SPD Health Screening Form indicating whether or not Jonah was placed on suicide watch, neither ‘yes’ nor ‘no’ was checked.”

Smith spoke with Marciniak about 2:54 a.m. and again about 3:12 a.m., after Marciniak “began pounding on the jail cell door with such force that the door was visibly moving,” the suit says.

Smith returned a few minutes later “and spent several minutes trying to calm Jonah down from his obviously distressed mental state,” the suit says.

Smith checked on Marciniak again at 3:33 a.m., left, and did not return for more than 45 minutes.

Marciniak hung himself during that time. He died of his injuries Aug. 21, 2016.

Shorewood police policy requires visual checks of inmates every 30 minutes and of mentally unstable detainees every 15 minutes, according to the suit.

Smith altered the SPD booking sheet to show that he had checked on Jonah at 4:00 a.m. when he actually did not, the suit says.

“Smith only admitted to altering the SPD Booking Sheet after being interviewed for the third time about the incident with Jonah and being confronted with video showing that he had taken the SPD Booking Sheet from the jail area after he found Jonah hanging,” the suit says.

Smith eventually pleaded guilty to obstructing a law enforcement officer and resigned. He was sentenced to one day in jail with credit for one day time served.

He also paid a $500 fine.

Gretchen Schuldt writes a blog for Wisconsin Justice Initiative, whose mission is “To improve the quality of justice in Wisconsin by educating the public about legal issues and encouraging civic engagement in and debate about the judicial system and its operation.

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