After a handcuffed ride in the back of a police van, a man was left paralyzed and needed his legs amputated, lawsuit alleges

Eric Levenson, CNN | 3/21/2024, 11:58 a.m.
A man filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging he was paralyzed and needed his legs amputated after police officers in …
Heriberto Alejandro Sanchez-Mayen before he was arrested. Mandatory Credit: Courtesy Attorney Leesfield Scolaro via CNN Newsource

A man filed a federal lawsuit Monday alleging he was paralyzed and needed his legs amputated after police officers in St. Petersburg, Florida, put him in restraints, placed him in the back of a police van without a seatbelt and then drove in a reckless manner.

Heriberto Alejandro Sanchez-Mayen filed the lawsuit in US District Court for the Middle District of Florida against the city of St. Petersburg and officers Sarah Gaddis and Michael Thacker. An attorney for Sanchez-Mayen also provided CNN with video from inside the van and from a police body camera showing what led to his arrest, his movement inside the van and the aftermath.

The complaint relates to a June 8, 2023, encounter when Sanchez-Mayen was detained and arrested by Gaddis for trespassing, the lawsuit states.

According to police body cam video, Gaddis walked up to Sanchez-Mayen, who was lying down in a grassy lot, and asked what he was doing. “I fell asleep,” he responded.  Gaddis at first told Sanchez-Mayen she would give him a ticket but then changed her mind, the video shows.

“You’re going to write me a ticket?” Sanchez-Mayen asked.

“No, you’re going to take the ride today. I’ve decided that you’re going to actually go to jail today. Far too many problems with you,” she responded. “We’re getting all kinds of complaints. Can’t be doing this,” the officer said.

“You get tickets all the time. You don’t care. You don’t change your ways,” she explained.

Thacker then arrived at the scene in a police van and restrained Sanchez-Mayen in handcuffs at the front of his body using a metal belly chain, which restricted the use of his arms, the suit states.

In the body cam footage, Thacker remarked that any crime should be a felony after certain number of incidents. “A year in jail would probably settle it,” he added.

Thomas Scolaro, Sanchez-Mayen’s attorney, told CNN his client does have “some prior arrests for things like loitering and trespassing” and said he is homeless.

“Alcohol has been an issue throughout his life, but it never resulted in any violence,” Scolaro said. “If anything, it only hurt him.”

Officer drove in ‘reckless manner,’ suit claims

After being handcuffed, Sanchez-Mayen was placed in the back of the van where there were no seatbelts, according to the suit, and video from inside the van.

Thacker allegedly drove “in a reckless manner and at an unsafe rate of speed,” before he suddenly came to a hard stop at an alleged red light, the suit states. The hard stop caused Sanchez-Mayen to be thrown forward, and his head struck a metal partition, according to the suit and video.

The van surveillance video does not capture the entire ride. According to the lawsuit, Thacker initially did not have the van camera enabled, but he turned the camera on after he heard a loud crash in the back. Scolaro told CNN the video technology in these cameras records 30 seconds prior to being enabled.

After driving to the Pinellas County jail, Thacker opened the rear doors of the van and found Sanchez-Mayen “lying face down, motionless, unconscious, and unresponsive,” the suit states. The officer unsuccessfully attempted to wake him up and then dragged his limp body out of the van, causing Sanchez-Mayen to hit his head on the bumper, the door and the concrete floor, the suit states.

Sanchez-Mayen suffered spinal cord injuries that left him a quadriplegic, or paralyzed in all of his limbs, and resulted in the amputation of both of his legs above the knee, the suit states.

The lawsuit states Sanchez-Mayen should not have been arrested in the first place, noting the criminal trespassing charge was later dismissed by the county court.

Thacker is accused of excessive force and intentional battery, Gaddis is accused of false arrest and malicious prosecution and the city is accused of negligent supervision and training, among other counts, according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs asked for a jury trial.

“The St. Petersburg Police Department denies the claims and trusts in the judicial process,” police said in a statement. “The Department defers all media inquiries on pending litigation to the City of St. Petersburg City Attorney’s Office.”

CNN has reached out to the city and the officers for further comment.

The incident bears similarities to what is known as a “rough ride,” a term used to describe police placing a detained person in the back of a van, without a seatbelt, and then driving erratically. The term came to mass prominence after the controversial 2015 death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, who suffered severe injuries as he was being transported in a police van.