Did a Rough Ride in a Police Van Cause Freddie Gray's Death? Baltimore Lawyer Phil Federico Discusses the Case

Freddie Gray’s death, and the reactions to it, have been on the news for days. There is no video capturing what happened to Gray inside the police van, and the cause of his fatal spinal injury has not yet been revealed. But what is known is that Gray was handcuffed and put in leg irons inside the van but was not buckled into his seat. And detainees not buckled into their seats have been paralyzed or killed by rough rides in police vans. The Gray case is discussed by Baltimore attorney Phil Federico, who has had experience in cases like this.

Phil Federico

Phil Federico

Federico says that his law firm has handled “two strikingly similar cases.” In one of the cases, the client was pulled over for DUI and was strip searched in the middle of the street. He was handcuffed and put in leg irons. The officer became upset at something the detainee said; he put the detainee in a headlock and twisted his neck until it snapped. The officer claimed that the injury arose from the detainee’s beating his head against the wall, an impossibility.

Some years later, a client was arrested for public urination and was handcuffed and placed in a transport wagon. He was given a rough ride to the station. When the opened the back of the van, the client was lying on the floor of the van, paralyzed. The rough ride had caused trauma that resulted in a compression fracture of his cervical spine.

Both of these cases were tried in the courts in Baltimore city. In the first case, the jury awarded $39 million. In the second case, the award was $6 million.

Based on what information is available, including video evidence, Federico believes that Gray’s spinal injury could have been caused by the ride. “The details of Freddie’s case are very, very sketchy at this point.” It is not clear how much investigation has been done to this point, but no information has been revealed. However, there has been no evidence that Gray threatened the police officers. “The rule of thumb is officers are only permitted to use the same level of force that they are being confronted with.”

Federico says that the transport vans have belts that can be used to secure people who have been arrested and are being transported. The police manuals direct that officers should put the detainees into the seats and belt them in securely. Only then are they permitted to drive away. And they are supposed to drive away in a reasonable fashion. The officers were responsible for Gray’s “well-being and health.”

Even if a detainee is not being cooperative with the police officers, Federico says, they are not allowed to drive away with the detainee loose in the van. “It’s against police policy and procedure.” Federico also says that this in only the third incident of this nature he has seen in fifteen years. “I wouldn’t want people to think that this was a routine practice.” Federico says that, in a situation like this, the officers and the department would be liable for damages. The officers would be primarily liable for the misconduct, but the city has made it a policy to stand behind the officers and pay any judgments against them.

Federico says that, if he were handling a case like this, he would begin with subpoenaing the records from the police internal affairs unit and would interview all witnesses while their memories were fresh.

Philip C. Federico is a founding and senior partner with Schochor, Federico and Staton, P.A., Baltimore, Maryland. He is certified by the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys and has lectured at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Union Memorial Hospital and other health care facilities, as well as the National Business Institute to Lawyers and Paralegals in Maryland. Because of his expertise in the field, Mr. Federico has been asked to testify before the Maryland Legislature on issues related to law, medicine and tort reform. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.