Freemont County, CO -- Imagine making a flippant comment to an individual and then having your world become a living nightmare as a result. One would think, in a free society, the things we say couldn’t possibly turn into a rights-violating and utterly torturous encounter with police but that is precisely what happened to Carolyn O’Neal of Fremont County, Colorado.
The Canyon City Police of the Fremont County Sheriffs Department got a call from O’Neal’s substance abuse and recovery center (where she was living in a residential setting) who said O’Neal was suicidal. O’Neal’s mother was dying of terminal cancer and she was so distraught she made a careless comment about driving her car off of a cliff and just end it all. That is it.
The mother, who was in her late 50’s, had already survived substance abuse issues, was working and making a living, yet the news of her mother’s illness was just apparently too much to handle. As a result of her facility’s 911 call for a wellness check, the Canyon City Police responded to O’Neal’s residence.
Without a warrant the Canyon City PD entered O’Neal’s home, found her completely naked, threw her down on her bed (which according to her lawyer triggered flashbacks to a lifetime of abuse), and arrested her without even allowing her to dress herself first.
Throughout the ordeal, O’Neal was demanding they leave her home as they had entered without permission. She was taken naked to jail, and placed into a restraint chair. As if that wasn’t enough humiliation, the jailers kept her naked, a spit mask placed over her head, and only partially covered by a jailhouse blanket leaving her breast exposed.
Somehow O’Neal managed to get one foot free from the restraints, not as a way to attack officers, but in an attempt to cross her legs to prevent other inmates and officers from seeing her most private parts. As a result of her escaping just one restraint, officers responded by tasering the already incapacitated, completely naked, middle-aged mother.
After they tasered her they then forced her legs open again to return her foot to the restraint. She spent four hours in the restraint chair. They then placed her, still nude, on the bed, keeping her there in a state of humiliation for 8 more hours as male guards can be seen in surveillance footage handling her, entering, and exiting her jail cell.
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Mind you O’Neal had committed no crime, was exercising her rights to free speech and was confiding with one of the leaders at the residential substance abuse facility about the incredibly difficult day she was having. She did not assault any of the officers, and was eventually freed from jail without being charged with anything more than “disturbing the police”, the Colorado equivalent of resisting arrest and obstruction.
Those charges were later dropped and a settlement of $20,000 was offered to O’Neal as compensation for the police officers' egregious actions. Her lawyers rejected the offer and continued to sue Fremont County for violating the woman’s civil rights. After seeing the abuse Ms. O’Neal suffered at the hands of Canyon City police, a jury awarded the devastated mother a 3 million dollar settlement which was later reduced to 2.4 million dollars.
O’Neal used the money to buy her children new homes. Her lawyers at Kilmer, Lane & Newman LLP said the money has really changed her life and given her hope for the future. They said Ms. O’Neals case could never have been settled had it not all been captured on surveillance footage.
Every encounter with police should be recorded to protect both law enforcement and the citizenry, but especially the citizenry as the word of law enforcement in court rarely gets questioned by juries.
It is hard to believe, in this day in age where the government can and does spy on all Americans, each Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) still has the autonomy to decide whether or not to issue body cameras to its officers. That’s right America, police officers can and do come into people’s homes without a warrant, arrest them while completely naked, torture them with hoods, restraint chairs, tasers, and humiliation and wonder why there’s a movement going on to defund the police. Go figure!
The incident below was so over the top, so utterly disgusting, that Killmer, Lane & Newman LLP's case, Carolyn O'Neal v Fremont County, et al, was nominated for the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association's Case of the Year Award last week.