CSAO: Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford Concerning the Death of Jose Maldonado in East Hartford on April 13, 2014

Report of the State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Hartford Concerning the Death of Jose Maldonado in East Hartford on April 13, 2014

Introduction | Facts | Post-Mortem Examination | Jose Maldonado | Wilson Ramos | Officer Jason Kaplan | Taser X26 | Legal Analysis | Conclusion | Appendices

INTRODUCTION

On April 13, 2014, East Hartford Police notified an inspector from the Hartford State’s Attorney’s Office of a use of force incident in which a police officer deployed his department issued Taser on 23-year-old Jose Maldonado, who had become combative with officers while in custody at the East Hartford Police Department.  After trying to force his way out of a holding cell, Maldonado fought with officers and was Tasered. He subsequently entered into a state of distress and EMT personnel responded.  Despite receiving medical attention, Jose Maldonado was subsequently pronounced dead at Hartford Hospital.

Pursuant to Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a, the undersigned State’s Attorney requested the assistance of the Connecticut State Police Central District Major Crime Squad to investigate and determine the circumstances of the death of Jose Maldonado. The State Police responded to the East Hartford Police Department on April 13, 2014, and assumed the investigation. They secured and processed the scene, collected evidence and had it tested.  They also interviewed witnesses and prepared a comprehensive report documenting their investigation.  The findings of that investigation are as follows:

FACTS

On April 13, 2014, at approximately 1:30 a.m., East Hartford police were dispatched to 130 Nutmeg Lane in East Hartford on the report of a disturbance.  Upon arrival, Sergeant James Lis observed a white Honda parked in the middle of the roadway with extensive damage to the front windshield.  An adult female and male were standing outside of the car, which was occupied by three young children. The female was crying and kept repeating, “He broke my windshield.”  Sergeant Lis stated that she was pointing to two males who were standing next to a white Pontiac parked nearby. The female stated that she was driving the white Honda on Nutmeg Lane when she saw the two males walking in the travel lane of the road. Based upon how they were walking, she believed them to be intoxicated. She yelled insults at the men, and one of the males, who would later be identified as Jose Maldonado, smashed the windshield of her car with his right fist and then jumped on top of the car and walked on the trunk. Officers noted that the Honda’s windshield was smashed from the outside in and that there were glass fragments throughout the interior of the vehicle.

Sergeant Lis reported that he approached the two males, identified as Wilson Ramos and Jose Maldonado. He stated that Maldonado was seated in the front passenger seat and appeared to be agitated, and that Ramos, who was standing outside the open passenger door, was holding Maldonado by the shoulder in an attempt to force Maldonado to stay in the car. After disobeying Sergeant Lis’s order to move away from Mr. Maldonado to allow Sergeant Lis to speak with him, Mr. Ramos was pepper-sprayed, forced to the ground and handcuffed. He was arrested and charged with Interfering with an Officer. That charge was subsequently nolled by prosecutors, and has since been dismissed.

Sergeant Lis reported that after Mr. Ramos was handcuffed, he saw that Mr. Maldonado was out of the vehicle and was approaching him in an aggressive manner, with clenched fists and muttering, “Fuck you mother fucker.”  Sergeant Lis stated that to protect himself from what he believed to be an imminent attack; he punched Maldonado in the face with a closed fist. Officer Matthew Parlapiano, who arrived on scene, stated that he observed Sergeant Lis struggling to place Maldonado in custody, so he pepper sprayed Maldonado. Officer Jason Kaplan also arrived on scene and observed the struggle taking place. Once Maldonado was handcuffed, Officer Kaplan was directed to transport him to police headquarters. Wilson Ramos was transported separately by Officer Jason Cohen.

Officer Kaplan prepared a report wherein he stated that as he transported Jose Maldonado from 130 Nutmeg Lane to the East Hartford Police Department. Maldonado was screaming, swearing and yelling along the way. He stated that he drove with the window down to provide Maldonado comfort because he had been pepper-sprayed. Upon his arrival at the police station, Officer Kaplan waited for Officer Cohen to assist him in bringing Maldonado into the booking area. The East Hartford Police Department’s cellblock area (Appendix A and B), is equipped with surveillance cameras that captured images from the holding cell and booking areas. The cameras are video only and do not record audio.[1]

The officers escorted Maldonado into the decontamination area to wash off the pepper spray; however, Maldonado resisted officers’ attempts to decontaminate him. He was placed in a holding cell in the processing area where he immediately removed his shirt, which was covered in pepper spray, and used it to wipe his face. Mr. Maldonado began to pace in the holding cell, as he continued to remove his clothing. When Mr. Ramos was brought into the cellblock area, he was decontaminated and was then asked if he would be able to be in the same holding cell with Mr. Maldonado. Mr. Ramos replied that he would be okay as they were brothers.

Sergeant Lis, Officer Kaplan and Officer Cohen stood outside the cell, with Wilson Ramos in front of the sliding cell door, as they prepared to put him in the cell with Mr. Maldonado. Officer Cohen unlocked the cell and attempted to remove one of Ramos’s handcuffs, at which point Jose Maldonado charged toward the door and forced it open. Maldonado immediately began throwing punches at the officers as he tried forcing his way out by them. Officer Kaplan reported that Maldonado took a “combative stance” and began to fight with Sergeant Lis. Officers pushed Ramos and Maldonado into the cell while Officer Kaplan, holding his Taser in one hand and using the other to confine Ramos to the corner, yelled “Taser,” causing Sergeant Lis and Officer Cohen to back away. Still using one hand to try to prevent Ramos from advancing toward Maldonado, Officer Kaplan discharged his Taser. He reported that he was unsure if the Taser made a good connection, as Maldonado made a fist and was “flexing up.” Officer Kaplan reported that Maldonado seemed to be trying to pull the Taser darts from his stomach area.[2]

Officer Cohen reported that when he unlocked the cell door, Maldonado grabbed the door and swung it open, at which point, Cohen saw a fist come toward his face and felt his left eye burning. Officer Cohen stated that he pushed Maldonado into the cell as Sergeant Lis attempted to subdue him. He stated that as Maldonado continued to fight, he heard Officer Kaplan say that he was going to use his Taser, so he and Sergeant Lis backed away from Maldonado. He reported that Officer Kaplan tried to hold Ramos back with one hand as he deployed his Taser, striking Maldonado in the mid-stomach area. He stated Maldonado appeared to be moving forward as he heard Sergeant Lis state that the Taser was not working.

Sergeant Lis reported that the Taser struck Maldonado in the mid-section at which point he observed Maldonado bend over with clenched fists while placing his hands near the Taser probes. After hearing Officer Kaplan say, “He’s pulling out the probes,” Sergeant Lis responded that he did not believe that the Taser was working because he saw a gap between the probes and Maldonado seemed to be trying to pull them out. Sergeant Lis stated that based upon Maldonado’s “recent unpredictable violent actions,” he felt that another violent encounter was imminent, so he punched Mr. Maldonado in the face and pushed him to the floor.

Maldonado fell to the floor and struck his head on the rear wall of the cell but brought himself up to a seated position. Officers laid him on the floor, handcuffed his hands behind his back and left him on the floor in the cell. Officers periodically performed visual checks of Maldonado and reported seeing movement. After approximately five minutes, and seeing little movement by Maldonado, officers went into the cell. Upon receiving no response from him, officers requested emergency medical personnel. Jose Maldonado was transported to Hartford Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 2:54 a.m. 

POST-MORTEM EXAMINATION

A post-mortem examination was performed on the body of Jose Maldonado on April 14, 2014, by Dr. H. Wayne Carver at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Farmington. Detectives from the Connecticut State Police observed the autopsy and documented the deceased’s injuries with photographs.

Jose Maldonado was 69 inches tall and weighed 175 pounds. Evidence of injury included a contusion of the forehead and abrasions on the right shoulder, right hip, right ear, right knee, right pectoral muscle and left forearm. There were two electromechanical disruption darts (Taser darts) in the skin – one at the level of the nipples, one inch to the left of the midline and the other at the midclavicular line on the left. Both darts were surrounded by a small amount of abrasion. State Police also photographed abrasions to Maldonado’s right hand, right palm, left hand and left palm. The cause of injuries was not identified in the report. An examination of Maldonado’s cardiovascular system was unremarkable. There were no external injuries to the scalp, no factures of the skull and no grossly visible injuries to the brain. Dr. Dean Uphoff was consulted for a neuropathology examination and reported no external evidence of contusion or hemorrhage to the brain. There were no drugs detected in Maldonado’s blood, however, a toxicology report showed a blood alcohol concentration level of .241.  (It is noted that pursuant to Connecticut state law an adult with a BAC of .08 percent or greater is deemed to be legally intoxicated and thus unfit to operate a motor vehicle.)

On July 28, 2014, Dr. Carver certified the cause of death to be cardiac arrhythmia, following precordial electrical shock, and blunt injury of the head. The final manner of death was classified as homicide.

JOSE MALDONADO

At the time of this incident, Jose Maldonado was 23 years old.  On April 13, 2014, State Police spoke with Jose’s grandmother, who stated that she had custody of Jose from ages 8-15 and that when he was younger, he was treated for “schizophrenia,” although she did not believe he had been officially diagnosed.  She stated that he was prescribed medication for his mental health problems but stopped taking it when he turned 18 years old. A couple of weeks prior to his death, his grandmother stated that he spoke of experiencing heart palpitations but did not go to a doctor and did not continue to complain about them. She stated that Jose would become short-tempered and aggressive when he drank alcohol, so she would only allow him to go out with Wilson, who would not allow him to drink.

Prior to the encounter with the operator of the Honda on Nutmeg Lane, Jose Maldonado and Wilson Ramos had been at a party on Nutmeg Lane. Connecticut State Police interviewed the woman who hosted the party in connection with this investigation. She stated that she asked Wilson to take Jose outside as he started to annoy the other guests as he became intoxicated. She stated that after they were out for approximately one half hour, she went out to smoke a cigarette. She said she saw Jose, who appeared to be crying, as his eyes were red and swollen. She stated that he did not recognize her and asked loudly, “who is that coming near me.” She stated that he was at the point of “freaking out” and that the look in his eyes was “scary.” She stated that he cocked his arm back and made a fist, as if to hit her, so she went back to her apartment for her own safety.

On April 9, 2014, four days prior to the Nutmeg Lance incident, Jose Maldonado was placed on probation for convictions stemming from an arrest in 2012 for Breach of Peace, Assault in the Third Degree, Threatening, and Use of a Motor Vehicle without Owner’s Permission. He had been scheduled for his first appointment to meet with his probation officer on April 28, 2014.

WILSON RAMOS

Before he had been told that Mr. Maldonado died, Wilson Ramos gave a statement to State Police investigators. He stated, in pertinent part:

“[M]y brother was taking off his clothes and there were three East Hartford Police Officers there. They were trying to subdue him as he took his clothes off. The officers asked him why he was taking his clothes off. I don’t recall what if anything he said, but at that point anything he said would’ve been jibberish because of how drunk he was. I don’t recall any punches being thrown. An officer Tasered him as he stood, and the Taser didn’t drop him to the floor. He tensed up, but had to be put down on the floor because the Taser just didn’t take him to the floor. The officers took him to the floor and he was handcuffed and sprayed. I was brought to a cell and couldn’t see what was going on at that point, but heard my brother groan. I asked an officer if he was ok since I heard him groan, and was told he seemed ok and I asked them to check his pulse. I was told it seemed like he was breathing and the police discussed calling an EMT and I also asked them to, which they did.”

Wilson Ramos emailed a second statement to the State Police, wherein he stated, in pertinent part:

“[M]y brother Jose started to remove his clothing when an officer asked him why he was removing them, then he proceeded to approach him. At this point, I was turned outwards of the holding cage. The officers attempted to subdue Jose, the sergeant present (Male, Caucasian, over six feet in height) engaged in striking him once or twice. While the other officers attempted to grab him, an officer that is also Male, Caucasian, approximately 5’10” with a military haircut or “fade” Tasered Jose which lead him to temporary paralysis (or so I was under the impression and the other two officers proceeded to handcuff him and then spray him … After recalling some of the details from the tragic incident, I strongly believe that there was absolutely no reason to use excessive force on someone that was intoxicated. The officer did not have to engage Jose, as Jose was not in the state to make a judgment call and felt like he was threatened. The Taser and the striking did not have to take place to subdue an individual, as stated on the eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

OFFICER JASON KAPLAN

At the time of this incident, Officer Jason Kaplan had been an East Hartford police officer for approximately 18 months. He had no disciplinary history with the department. He received his Taser certification through the State of Connecticut Police Officer Standards and Training Council in September 2012 and requalified on March 6, 2014. On the advice of his attorney, he declined to be interviewed by State Police investigators, but he did complete supplemental reports of his involvement in the arrest and Tasering of Jose Maldonado.

In his report, Officer Kaplan stated that after Maldonado undressed down to his underwear, he charged toward the bullpen door, pushed the door open in an aggressive manner and began throwing punches at the officers. Officer Kaplan stated that he gave a verbal command for Maldonado to “get back,” then removed his Taser from the holster and yelled “Taser” more than once.

Officer Kaplan stated that Maldonado was still taking a combative stance. When he discharged his Taser, Maldonado made fists with his hands and appeared to be attempting to pull the Taser darts from his stomach area. Officer Kaplan stated that he did not see the reaction that he expected. At that point, Sergeant Lis struck Maldonado and brought him to the ground. Officer Kaplan stated that he kept Maldonado under the power of the Taser while still attempting to control Wilson Ramos with his free hand. After Maldonado was handcuffed, he observed Maldonado to be calmer and more relaxed. He stated that Ramos asked Maldonado if he was all right and Maldonado seemed to acknowledge him.

TASER X26

The Connecticut State Police seized the Taser, Model X26, Serial Number X00-676814, carried by Officer Kaplan. A software download was performed by Trooper Karen O’Connor, which showed a single deployment at 02:16:17, for a 20-second duration. In response to an inquiry by State Police investigators, Trooper O’Connor stated that the 20 seconds represents the length of time that Officer Kaplan held the trigger – not necessarily the length of time that Jose Maldonado was receiving the deployment. She stated that the actual length of time that the subject receives the deployment depends on the time that the Taser prongs/darts puncture the skin and both wires leading back to the Taser are attached. She stated that should the prongs not contact the subject, or the wires are torn, the shock will not be delivered to the subject even if the officer keeps the Taser trigger pulled. Trooper O’Connor reported that the time on the Taser was incorrect, and was approximately 12 minutes ahead of the actual time on the device. She corrected the time, and noted it in her report.

LEGAL ANALYSIS

At the time of this incident, Connecticut General Statutes Section 51-277a provided as follows:

“Whenever a peace officer, in the performance of his duties, uses deadly physical force upon another person and such person dies as a result thereof, the Division of Criminal Justice shall cause an investigation to be made and shall have the responsibility of determining whether the use of deadly physical force by the peace officer was appropriate under section 53a-22.[3]

Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(b) provides in relevant part that “a peace officer is justified in using physical force upon another … when and to the extent that he reasonably believes such to be necessary to:  (1) prevent the escape from custody of a person whom he … reasonably believes to have committed an offense; (2) defend himself or a third person from the use or imminent use of physical force … while preventing or attempting to prevent an escape.”

In evaluating self-defense claims, the reasonableness of the officer’s belief is judged from both a subjective and objective standpoint.  State vs. Smith, 73 Conn. App. 173, 185-86, cert. denied, 262 Conn. 923 (2002). First, the officer must honestly believe that the use of deadly force is necessary to defend himself or another from the imminent use of deadly force. If it is determined by the trier of fact that the officer honestly believed the use of such force necessary, the trier of fact must then determine whether the officer’s belief was objectively reasonable.

The United States Supreme Court has held that “the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 396 (1989). In determining reasonableness, a trier must account for the fact that “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments – in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving – about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation.”  Id. at 396-97.

With respect to the findings of the medical examiner regarding the cause of death, Officer Jason Kaplan and Sergeant James Lis were the officers whose use of force could reasonably be at issue. Officer Kaplan deployed his Taser striking Jose Maldonado. Sergeant Lis punched and then pushed Mr. Maldonado, who fell to the floor and hit the wall. In this regard, the undersigned sought clarification from Dr. Carver regarding his finding of “blunt injury of the head” where the only notable head injury sustained by Mr. Maldonado was a contusion to his forehead.  Dr. Carver stated that the “blunt head injury” finding was “not significant” and was based upon his review of the cellblock video and that the primary cause of death was cardiac arrhythmia. In light of Dr. Carver’s response, the undersigned concentrated on Officer Kaplan’s deployment of the Taser with respect to this use of force investigation.

A Taser, also known as a Conducted Electrical Weapon (CEW), or a Conductive Energy Device (CED), is a device that uses propelled wires or direct contact to conduct energy to affect the sensory and motor functions of the nervous system. East Hartford Police Department General Order 264.30.31 describes the Taser an “an electro-muscular disruption weapon, which is designed to incapacitate a combative individual without causing injury or death.” Tasers are included with pepper spray, batons and asps as “less lethal force,” defined as the degree of force that is neither likely nor intended to cause death. At East Hartford Police Department, only those officers certified by a Taser instructor as having the ability to demonstrate proficiency in their use are allowed to carry Tasers.

In the “Study of Death Following Electro Muscular Disruption,”[4] the Taser X26 is cited as the most common version of dart-mode CED manufactured and sold by Taser International for law enforcement use. “When the trigger is pulled and the darts attach to the skin or clothing, the device delivers its standard charge as an initial pulse wave … followed by a series of low current pulses for five seconds.” The device has the ability to deliver extensively prolonged and uninterrupted discharges. The discharge cycle can be shortened or prolonged through depressing the trigger. The limit of five minutes represents the maximum power in the battery. Prior to 2008, Taser International warned against applications of greater than five seconds due to the potential impairments to respiration. However, more recent tests cited no adverse effects on the heart function or respiration from multiple or “prolonged” deployments.[5]

Although most of the studies concerning CED exposure were limited to exposures of 15 seconds or less, experiments on healthy human volunteers found no cardiac dysrhythmias or respiratory dysfunction following exposures of less than 45 seconds.

In its findings, the National Institute of Justice concluded that there was “no conclusive medical evidence indicating a high risk of serious injury or death from short term CED exposure in healthy, normal, nonstressed, nonintoxicated persons ….” However, it cautioned that “the physiologic effects of prolonged or repeated CED exposure are not fully understood,” so law enforcement should refrain from continuous activations of greater than 15 seconds “when possible.” The institute advised, however, that law enforcement need not refrain from using CED’s to place uncooperative or combative subjects in custody so long as the devices are used in accordance with accepted national standard and an appropriate use of force policy.

In the State of Connecticut, a Taser is not regarded as a deadly weapon. The deployment of a Taser constitutes the use of non-deadly physical force. Tasers are included in the class of electronic defense weapons defined in Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-3(20) as “a weapon which by electronic impulse or current is capable of immobilizing a person temporarily, but is not capable of inflicting death or serious physical injury.”

East Hartford Police Department General Order 263.00.59 includes Tasers within the category of less lethal weapons, the use of which constitute the use of less lethal force, which is defined as “that degree of force which, under the circumstances, is neither likely nor intended to cause death.”

At the time that he deployed his Taser, Officer Kaplan knew that Jose Maldonado had used his bare fist to break the windshield of a motor vehicle. He observed a combative Jose Maldonado on Nutmeg Lane, upon whom officers had to use physical force, namely, a punch and a burst of pepper spray, before he could be taken into custody. Mr. Maldonado continued his disorderly behavior during transport. Once in a cell at the police department, in spite of three officers positioned outside the cell, Mr. Maldonado was able to single-handedly force the cell door open and force his way out of the cell before being forced back inside. Maldonado then assumed a fighting stance and began throwing punches at the officers.

The factors, viewed in conjunction with his level of intoxication, the reports of his grandmother regarding heart palpitations and mental health concerns, and the reports of the woman who hosted the party on Nutmeg Lane prior to Jose Maldonado’s involvement with police, the undersigned cannot say, without medical records to the contrary, that Jose Maldonado was a “healthy, normal, nonstressed, nonintoxicated person” when he fought with police. Further, there is no conclusive evidence regarding the length of deployment that would lead to serious physical injury or death.

Connecticut General Statutes Section 53a-22(b) justifies the police officer’s use of physical force to prevent an escape from custody and to defend the officer or a third person from the use of physical force while preventing or attempting to prevent an escape.

CONCLUSION

Based upon all the facts and circumstances outlined above, the undersigned State’s Attorney finds that Officer Kaplan’s use of physical force to defend himself and his fellow officers against a combative Jose Maldonado was reasonable.  Based on his training, Officer Kaplan had no reason to believe that his use of a Taser to prevent Jose Maldonado from escaping would lead Jose Maldonado to suffer either serious physical injury or death. I therefore find the actions of Officer Jason Kaplan to be reasonable and justified; and the Division of Criminal Justice will take no further action.

Gail P. Hardy

State’s Attorney

Judicial District of Hartford



[1] The Connecticut State Police seized the video from the cellblock area and prepared a time line of the captured images.  (Appendix C)

[2] In addition to Officer Kaplan, Sergeant Lis and Officer Cohen prepared supplemental reports of the incident on Nutmeg Lane, and in the cell block area.  Officer Parlapiano prepared a report concerning the incident on Nutmeg Lane.

[3] June 2015, Spec. Sess. P.A. 15-4 amended Subsection (a)…to replace “deadly physical force” with physical force.

[4] USDOJ National Institute of Justice (May 2011)

[5] The study noted that there is no standard definition of “prolonged” CED exposure for either continuous duration or number of multiple interrupted discharges.

APPENDICES - PDF Format, Size 52K



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