by Robin Kemp
A man who says Sheriff Victor Hill arrested him on trumped-up harassing phone call charges, strapped him to a restraining chair in the Clayton County Jail for six hours, then locked him in a suicide cell with no clothes for another eight hours and taunted him, has filed suit in federal court.
Hill’s attorney, Drew Findling, told WSB’s Mark Winne, “There have been subpoenas for the production of evidence served upon the Office of the Sheriff of Clayton County. Individually, there is nothing going on regarding Sheriff Victor Hill.”
The suit and Findling’s statement come two weeks after FBI agents raided Hill’s office. At that time, a restraint-type chair was rolled out of the back entrance to the department where news crews were staked out. It is not clear whether that chair had been seized by the FBI or had any connection to the raid.
Restraint chairs, which are reminiscent of electric chairs without the wiring, are used to strap or cuff a person’s arms, legs, waist, chest, and head, rendering the person immobile.
The suit alleges Hill used excessive force and intentionally inflicted emotional distress against Glenn B. Howell, a landscaper who lives in Butts County. Howell claims Hill told him not to harass a CCSO lieutenant, Josh Guthrie, over what Howell claimed was a debt Guthrie owed him for landscaping work.
The suit also alleges that Hill “has a custom and practice of using the restraint chair without a rational justification related to maintaining institutional security or preserving internal order and discipline. Moreover, Sheriff Hill’s custom and practice is to use the restraint chair to punish inmates with whom he has personal grievances.”
According to the suit filed Wednesday in the Northern District, Howell “asserts his claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1988 to recover for personal injuries and economic damages suffered while incarcerated as a pretrial detainee in the County Jail wherein he was, at the express direction of Sheriff Hill, strapped to a restraint chair for approximately six (6) hours and then placed in a suicide cell wearing only a paper gown for approximately eight (8) hours solely for the purpose of punishment, and without serving any legitimate non-punitive governmental objective.”
The suit alleges that Guthrie had hired Howell to work on his yard. Howell showed up with his tractor on April 17 and had “completed a significant portion” of the job when the men disagreed about “the coordination of work to be performed by a separate contractor hired by Lt. Guthrie.” Guthrie ordered Howell to leave and never come back. Howell could not finish the job.
On April 18 and 19, the men continued arguing by text message. The suit alleges that Guthrie told Howell he would need a police escort to pick up “certain tools” Howell had left at Guthrie’s. Guthrie allegedly “threaten[ed] to obtain arrest warrants against Howell” and Howell replied that he would sue Guthrie for non-payment.
On the evening of April 23, the suit claims, things got more heated. Guthrie allegedly sent Howell a text “warning of legal action if Howell was at or near his house again. Howell quickly responded “what are you talking about” and advised that he had a contract with the homeowner across the street.”
Twenty-four minutes later, the suit alleges, “At 9:02 p.m. on April 23, 2020, Howell answered an incoming call on his cell phone from an unfamiliar number… now known to be Sheriff Hill’s personal cell phone. When the caller identified himself as Sheriff Victor Hill and threatened Howell with arrest if there was any further contact with Lt. Guthrie to pursue the debt owed or otherwise, Howell was in disbelief and skeptical that the caller was in fact Sheriff Hill. Howell had never met Sheriff Hill, did know Sheriff Hill, and had never spoken with Sheriff Hill. During the call, which lasted less than five (5) minutes, Howell expressed his disbelief and used profanities towards Sheriff Hill.”
After the call ended, Howell called the number back using Facetime “in a further attempt to confirm the identity of the caller as Sheriff Hill. Sheriff Hill answered Howell’s Facetime call on the second or third attempt wearing a face mask that covered the bottom half of his face. Sheriff Hill
repeatedly refused Howell’s request that he remove his mask to expose his face. Furthermore, Sheriff Hill refused to show Howell proof of his identity such as his license or law enforcement badge. When Sheriff Hill then abruptly ended the Facetime call, Howell made a few more Facetime attempts to [Hill’s number] immediately thereafter on the night of April 23, 2020.”
During those attempted callbacks, Howell got a text from Hill’s number:
“This is your only and formal warning in writing not to call me or face time me again. If you text or call me one more time I will have you arrested for harassing communications. Also you will be served with a TPO for harassing my Lieutenant. Do not go near his house again, or you will be arrested for stalking.”–Sheriff Victor Hill in an April 23 text message to Glenn Howell
Howell replied, “So this is Victor Hill correct.”
Another text from Hill’s number read, “This is your second warning in writing to stop and not to call me or face time me again.”
The next morning at 8:06 a.m., according to the suit, a warrant for Howell’s arrest on harassing communications was sworn out “based on the false and misleading affidavit of Sheriff Hill’s employee, Logan Edward Smith” and alleging that “the affidavit falsely states that ‘said accused did contact Victor Hill repeatedly via phone call for the purpose of harassing Victor Hill by calling Victor Hill approximately five times after being asked to stop.’”
Howell’s suit alleges five factors left out would have resulted in the warrant application’s denial for lack of probable cause:
- Hill allegedly had initiated the contact with Howell at 9 p.m.
- Hill allegedly “attempt[ed] to dissuade Howell, via threat of arrest, from pursuing a civil claim against Lt. Guthrie”
- “the Facetime call between Howell and Sheriff Hill and the substance thereof”
- Howell repeatedly having tried to confirm Hill’s identity
- “that Howell had used profanity against, and otherwise insulted, Sheriff Hill during their phone call.”
At 1:26 p.m. that afternoon, the suit alleges, Hill texted Howell, saying, “Mr. Howell this is Sheriff Victor Hill. We have a warrant for your arrest.
Would you like to turn yourself in, or have my Deputies come find you?” This was the first time, according to the suit, that Hill had identified himself to Howell.
Howell did not text back, instead seeking out a lawyer for advice on turning himself in. The next day, April 25, Hill allegedly texted Howell: “My Deputies are actively looking for you. We have not and will not agree for you to turn yourself in when you want to. Turn yourself in today.”
For the next two days, according to the suit, “Sheriff Hill’s heavily armed Fugitive Squad visited several locations in Butts County, Georgia searching for Howell without first notifying or requesting the assistance of the Butts County Sheriff’s Office.”
Howell turned himself in at the Clayton County Jail around 7:30 p.m. April 27. In the suit, he alleges the following sequence of events (all times are approximate):
7:30 p.m.: “[A] member of the jail’s tactical team entered [the booking area] and said “yeahhhh, we’ve been waiting on you.”
8 p.m.: Howell, still wearing his own clothes and not having “been assigned a cell, provided a jail jumpsuit, or otherwise completing the booking process,” was locked in a nearby holding cell. “A short time later, Howell heard a jailer yell ‘Sheriff on deck’.” Hill and members of the jail tactical team appeared and, “[a]s the door to the cell opened, a tactical team member told Howell to step outside and to ‘face the Sheriff.'” Allegedly, Hill “immediately got in Howell’s face and said ‘do I look like a motherfucker now?'” Hill and CCSO staff allegedly “berated and taunted” Howell, then “strapped [Howell] into a restraint chair and placed [him] into a suicide cell where he remained for approximately six hours.” Howell alleges that, although he had been compliant throughout his time in jail, he was cuffed so tightly that both hands went numb and that he has sustained damage to both wrists.
WSB’s Marke Winne spoke with Howell, who displayed scars on his wrists that he said came from being handcuffed in the chair.
3:30 a.m.: Howell was let out of the restraint chair, taken back to booking, and ordered to remove his personal clothing, shower, and don an orange jumpsuit. He was then locked in a booking cell.
4:30 a.m.: Howell was ordered to strip and put on a paper suicide gown. He was taken to “an exceptionally cold suicide cell with five other men….Like the gowns of the other men in the cell, Howell’s gown soon tore and otherwise fell apart such that his private parts were exposed.”
1:00 p.m.: Howell made first appearance before Chief Magistrate Judge Wanda Dallas, who set his bond. He is then “housed in the unit of the jail designated for convicted felony prisoners awaiting placement with the Georgia Department of Corrections.”
4:30 p.m.: Sheriff Hill visited Howell “to make sure that there ‘would not be any problems with you [Howell] going forward.’ Howell was respectful, as he had been throughout his brief incarceration, and assured Sheriff
Hill that there would be no problems.”
“Howell posted bond and was released on the night of April 28, 2020.”
The Clayton Crescent has asked Sheriff Hill for comment through the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office public information officer, Philip Price, and has asked the Butts County Sheriff’s Office to confirm or deny whether it had received notification from CCSO about serving the warrant on Howell. Butts County Sheriff Gary Long told the Jackson Press-Argus that concerned citizens had called his office about CCSO officers with long guns in the county, and that he told CCSO to get out. Long confirmed that FBI agents had interviewed him about the April incident.
An investigation by The Marshall Project found that at least 20 people have died in the past six years after being strapped into restraint chairs for extended periods of time. In addition, USA Today reported in 2014 on three dozen restraint chair deaths since the late 1990s. Sean Levert, the late R&B singer, died in a restraint chair after his medication was withheld for several days and he began hallucinating. In 2010, the Cuyahoga County Jail and contractor Midwest Medical Staffing settled out of court with Levert’s wife for $4 million.
The American Bar Association has published standards for the use of restraints in jails and prisons. The ABA’s acceptable reasons for restraining inmates include:
- to control a prisoner who presents an immediate risk of self-injury or injury to others
- to prevent serious property damage
- for health care purposes
- when necessary as a security precaution during transfer or transport
- the least restrictive forms of restraints that are appropriate
- used only as long as the need exists, not for a pre-determined period of time
- take into account special needs of prisoners with physical or mental disabilities, are under 18, are geriatric, pregnant, or have recently given birth
Correctional authorities should avoid:
- injuring restrained prisoners
- causing unnecessary physical pain or extreme discomfort
- restricting the prisoner’s blood circulation
- obstructing the prisoner’s breathing or airways
- hog-tying or restraining prisoners in fetal or prone positions
- putting restrained and unrestrained prisoners together in a correctional facility or during transport
- placing a prisoner in restraints in their cell “except immediately preceding an out-of-cell movement or for medical or mental health purposes as authorized by a qualified medical or mental health professional.”
Because the Clayton County sheriff is an elected position, not an appointed one like the Clayton County police chief, no county agency has oversight of the office.
This is not the first time metro sheriff’s departments have drawn federal scrutiny for their use of restraint chairs in jails. In 2018, a federal grand jury opened an investigation into alleged restraint chair abuse at the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office. In 2016, a federal judge threw out an excessive-force suit against Sheriff Butch Conway and his Rapid Response Team over their use of restraining chairs.
See the Georgia Department of Corrections’ policy on restraining prisoners: https://www.powerdms.com/public/GADOC/documents/105937
See a circular about liability for restraint chair misuse from the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia and the Georgia Municipal Association’s Local Government Risk Management Services office: https://www.lgrms.com/LGRMS/media/Files/Liability-Beat-Attacks-on-Law-Enforcement-Restraint-Chairs-November-2016.pdf