INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A federal appeals court ruled two Indianapolis police officers will not be held liable for the 2015 death of a black teenager who died in police custody after telling officers that he was struggling to breathe.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found there was no evidence the officers were aware that Terrell Day's breathing troubles following the 18-year-old's shoplifting arrest were caused or exacerbated by his handcuffs as he laid on the ground, “as opposed to his exertion during the chase preceding his arrest.”
The decision issued Jan. 10 reverses a federal judge’s ruling last May that mostly sided with attorneys for Day’s mother and determined that “reasonable officers would know they were violating an established right by leaving Day’s hands cuffed behind his back after he complained of difficulty breathing.”
The appeals court noted in its decision that Day weighed about 312 pounds and had an underlying heart condition, The Indianapolis Star reported. It found that the officers' conduct was not "obviously unlawful” because the handcuffs were used in a manner that would not have harmed an average arrestee.
“This case arose from an unfortunate tragedy. However, the officers did not violate any clearly established right,” the court said.
Day died on Sept. 26, 2015, after he was arrested in connection with a shoplifting incident at an Indianapolis clothing store where a loss-prevention officer alleged Day had tried to take a watch. A security guard then saw a gun in Day’s pocket after he fled the store.
By the time police caught up to Day, he’d collapsed onto a patch of grass behind a nearby gas station. A gun was found at the scene.
Day was pronounced dead after paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him.
Day's mother, Shanika Day, sued the two Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officers and the city of Indianapolis in 2017, alleging excessive force and negligence led to her son's death. She and her attorneys also believe race played a factor in his death.
They plan to ask the appeals court to reconsider the ruling, which attorney Nathaniel Lee calls a “radical departure” from its prior decisions.
“I think that this changes a lot of the rules,” co-counsel Faith Alvarez said. “Now, the burden is on the person who's dying. It’s no longer on the police to be trained.”
Attorneys for IMPD and the city declined to comment on the case.