Georgia city settles suit over 2017 death in police custody

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COLUMBUS, Ga. (AP) — A local government in Georgia agreed Tuesday to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of a Hispanic man who died in a struggle with police officers 2017.

Columbus Council members met in closed session and approved the settlement with the family of Hector Arreola, news outlets reported.

“Council decided that it was in the best interest of everyone involved, to include the Arreola family, the law enforcement personnel involved, the citizens of Columbus, Georgia,” Mayor Skip Henderson told WRBL-TV after the vote. “It gives us an opportunity, maybe to begin some healing on this.”

Council member Walker Garrett, an attorney who made the motion to settle the suit, said the settlement is unrelated to any criminal case that a district attorney might pursue against the officers.

“We think that the judge had made a pretty emphatic statement about the fact that there was precious little evidence to warrant a murder charge in this instance," Garrett said. "We are focused now on the civil aspect, and it allows the family to begin the healing process.”

An attorney for the Arreola family, Mark Post, released a statement saying the family considers the civil case closed, the Ledger-Enquirer reported.

“The Arreola family is pleased that this matter has been resolved and hopes that this resolution can provide a measure of healing for the community," Post said.

Arreola’s father, Rodrigo Arreola, signed the settlement agreement July 9. It says $490,000 will go to the guardian of Hector Arreola’s young child, and $10,000 will go to his estate, as managed by Rodrigo Arreola.

The agreement maintains the police officers did nothing wrong, and says the city offered the settlement without the officers' consent. The officers “expressly deny any and all liability, responsibility and potential liability,” and the settlement “shall not be construed as an admission of liability,” the agreement states.

NAACP leaders in Columbus have likened Arreola’s death to that of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Columbus NAACP branch President Wane Hailes has said Arreola said 16 times that he couldn’t breathe as an officer sat on him for more than two minutes while Arreola was handcuffed.

The officers were put on administrative leave during an investigation, but have returned to duty.

In June, U.S. District Judge Clay Land ruled that he would not halt the wrongful death lawsuit against officers Michael Aguilar, Brian Dudley and Aaron Evrard, despite their concerns that the district attorney is seeking to indict them on criminal charges. Land said he doesn't believe they can be successfully prosecuted for a crime.

The officers sought a postponement in the civil case after Muscogee County District Attorney Mark Jones named private attorney Christopher Breault as a special prosecutor investigating Arreola's death. Jones said he hoped Breault would be ready to present the case for possible indictment during the current court term, which ends in August.

The officers’ attorneys argued the criminal investigation hampered their defense in the civil suit, saying they could testify if they weren’t compelled to use their Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.

Arreola died during an arrest for disorderly conduct. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s initial autopsy report found that he died from methamphetamine toxicity. But the agency amended the report last year to say Arreola died by homicide. The amendment changed the cause of death to “sudden cardiac death following a struggle with law enforcement including prone position restraint complicating acute methamphetamine toxicity.”

The lawsuit alleged the cardiac arrest resulted from brain damage caused by the force the officers used in restraining him.

Land wrote that the statute of limitations has run out on all possible state charges except murder, and that the evidence he has seen shows it's unlikely that prosecutors could prove that officers acted with premeditated malice or that they killed Arreola while committing a separate felony. Those are the grounds for murder under Georgia law.

Jones last month said he respects Land’s ruling, but that the criminal case should be heard by a grand jury.

The Associated Press

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