Lawsuit Asks $10 Million In "Gruesome Death" Of Handcuffed Prisoner Who Drowned In Patrol Car

  • Monday, March 4, 2024

A federal lawsuit asks $10 million in damages in behalf of the son of a handcuffed female prisoner who suffered "a gruesome death" in the back of a Meigs County patrol car.

The suit was filed in the death of Tabitha Marie Smith, who drowned along with deputy Robert J. Leonard when he drove off a boat ramp at Blythe Ferry.

It happened on the night of Feb. 14. The deputy had been on the job two months.

The suit was brought by Nathan Alexander Smith, son of Tabitha Smith, against the Meigs County Sheriff's Office and the deceased officer.

It says at about 9:50 p.m., deputy Leonard was called to the scene of a disturbance on the Highway 60 bridge that spans the Tennessee River near the Birchwood community.

About three minutes after his arrival, Deputy Leonard had Ms. Smith in custody, with her hands cuffed behind her back and secured in the back seat of the Meigs County patrol car and on his way to the Meigs County Jail.

The suit says at some point between the arrest and the incident at issue, Deputy Leonard sent a text message to his wife via a cell phone. At about 10:03 p.m., a radio communication purportedly from Deputy Leonard to the police dispatcher for the county said, “water.”

It says the deputy had traveled on Blythe Ferry Road, which ended into the Tennessee River.

Some time later, authorities found the patrol car, upside down, at the bottom of the river. Ms. Smith's body was found still handcuffed with the hands behind her back and in the back seat of the patrol car, dead.

Deputy Leonard’s body was found outside of the patrol car, but in the Tennessee River.

The complaint says, "Based upon information and belief, Leonard was not properly trained by the county to know his assigned area of patrol and know the nature of the incident location.

"The location of the incident has a history of other people driving into the Tennessee River. Based upon information and belief, Leonard was not properly trained or supervised by the county to refrain from the use of his cell phone while transporting an arrestee in a patrol vehicle.

"Based upon information and belief, Leonard was not properly trained or supervised by the county to ensure the safety of the deceased while in his custody. As a direct and proximate result of the acts and omissions of Leonard and the county, the deceased suffered a horrific death. Based upon information and belief, Leonard ignored the deceased’s warnings."

The suit says, "Leonard’s inexplicable acts and omissions, despite his duty to protect the deceased, resulted in the constitutional deprivations, physical harm, and the indignity and humiliation of the loss of life and bodily integrity as she died while handcuffed in the back of the patrol car.

"Leonard had a duty to refrain from inflicting harm and death upon the deceased. Instead, he was texting and while he was hurdling toward the Tennessee River, ignored the deceased’s cries and attempts to warn Leonard that he was driving toward the river.

"As a further direct and proximate result of Leonard’s unconstitutional conduct, the deceased’s constitutional rights were violated, and the deceased suffered the indignity and humiliation of the loss of her life and bodily integrity as she died while cuffed and locked in the back seat of a patrol car."

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