The family of a man who died while in the custody of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the department and county.
According to the complaint, filed in federal court on December 1, "Lucky" Phounsey had been battling a severe case of insomnia for several days before the April 2015 altercation with deputies. The insomnia resulted in auditory hallucinations and paranoia. Phounsey became convinced that people were going to harm him and his family. His family contacted doctors, who allegedly told them to buy over-the-counter sleep medications. The medications did not work. They then decided to call 911 in order to prevent Phounsey from any danger.
On April 13, 2015, sheriff's deputies arrived at Phounsey's Santee home, completely unprepared to deal with the situation, says the complaint.
"When San Diego Sheriff’s Deputies and, later, EMTs and paramedics arrived, they each demonstrated a lack of adequate training and understanding with regard to dealing with, and especially diffusing, [sic] individuals in the throes of a psychotic episode.
"[Phounsey] turned around and placed his hands above his head as instructed. When the officers told [Phounsey] they were going to handcuff him, however, [Phounsey] became frightened and confused. The deputies did nothing to de-escalate the situation, as they were aggressive and profane. They refused to answer [his] questions. [Phounsey] was, at that point, literally incapable of understanding why those he called for help were treating him like a criminal."
Deputies used force to restrain Phounsey, agitating him further. To subdue him, deputies tased Phounsey multiple times and, says the complaint, struck him several times with their batons.
Once under control, deputies then "hogtied" Phounsey and put him in an ambulance. While inside he was given two or three doses of a sedative, benzodiazepine. Paramedics reportedly then placed a gag in Phounsey's mouth the keep him quiet. Phounsey's heart stopped beating before the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Despite efforts to keep him alive, he died a few days later.
According to a recent report by the Citizen's Law Enforcement Review Board, as of November 2015, the board is still investigating the circumstances of Phounsey's death.
The lawsuit is one of many similar lawsuits being filed by family members whose loved ones have died in police custody while experiencing psychotic episodes.
In a September 2015 article in the Orange County Register, San Diego County law enforcement reported a total of 799 deaths of inmates and detainees since 1980. The number, according to the report, was far greater than what was reported in Orange County and Riverside County.