Berrien County, Georgia, Sheriff Pleads Guilty to Using Excessive Force Against Arrestees
Berrien County, Georgia, Sheriff Anthony Heath pleaded guilty today to two counts of violating the civil rights of two non-resistant arrestees by using excessive force against them. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Acting U.S. Attorney G.F. Peterman III of the Middle District of Georgia announced the guilty plea. A sentencing date has not yet been set.
According to Heath’s guilty plea, on Jan. 12, 2012, Heath and deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) were engaged in a foot chase of an individual identified only as M.V., who had been banned from traveling through the county. During the chase, Heath saw M.V. and called out to him, “You better not run or I will beat your a**,” or words to that effect. M.V. responded by running into a nearby wooded area.
Heath and multiple BCSO deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a BCSO deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident. When a deputy reported that M.V. was in custody, Heath ordered deputies to wait and hold M.V. in the woods. When Heath arrived, M.V. was lying face-down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest. Heath kicked M.V. in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times, causing M.V. to experience pain and have difficulty breathing.
During a separate incident, on Oct. 1, 2014, Heath repeatedly punched and kicked an arrestee, identified only as J.H., even though J.H. surrendered, lay down on the ground and did not attempt to flee or threaten anyone at any point after his arrest. Heath punched J.H. with sufficient force to cause his own hand to become swollen and bruised. Heath’s punches caused J.H. to bleed from his mouth and to feel pain.
“As sheriff, Heath held the highest-ranking law enforcement position in Berrien County, but he violated the public trust when he chose to break the law and beat compliant arrestees,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta. “Our Constitution prohibits officers from using excessive and unnecessary force against non-resistant arrestees, and the Justice Department will continue to aggressively prosecute cases where law enforcement officers abuse their authority.”
“The people place tremendous power in the hands of someone they elect as county sheriff, and do so in faith that such power will be wielded appropriately,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Peterman. “The motto of our Sheriff’s in Georgia has traditionally been ‘To Serve and To Protect.’ Sheriff Heath abused that power and broke faith with those who elected him by physically abusing those he was sworn to protect.”
The case is being investigated by the FBI. Trial Attorneys Stephen Curran and Mary J. Hahn of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section are prosecuting the case.