GREAT FALLS - Law enforcement officers in two north-central Montana counties showed "discriminatory indifference" toward an 18-year-old inmate who died of acute alcohol withdrawal by failing to fill two prescriptions and administer the drugs meant to alleviate his symptoms, the Montana Human Rights Commission found.
The commission's 4-1 decision overturned a ruling by hearing officer Terry Spear, who said the officers in Hill and Blaine counties did not discriminate against A.J. Longsoldier Jr. on the basis of his race or the disability of alcoholism.
The commission ruled Longsoldier was discriminated on based on his alcoholism, which both the hearings officer and commissioners determined was a disability.
The commission's remand order, filed last week, returns the case to Spear to determine the measures needed to rectify the harm caused by the unlawful discrimination against Longsoldier, who died at a Havre hospital in November 2009.
The family of Longsoldier filed the complaint after a coroner's inquest determined detention officers could not be held criminally liable for his death.
"I just didn't want A.J.'s death to be swept under the rug," said Summer Stricker, the personal representative for Longsoldier's estate. "One thing I've always asked for was an apology and for somebody to take responsibility for what happened."
More importantly, she doesn't want something like that to happen again.
Longsoldier returned home from college in November 2009 for his grandfather's funeral when he was arrested on a Blaine County warrant for contempt of court. Blaine County houses its adult inmates in Hill County and Longsoldier was booked into the jail in Havre at 3:30 a.m. on Nov. 19, 2009.
The next day, jail personnel noticed Longsoldier was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, hallucinating and was unable to sleep. The Blaine County sheriff authorized Longsoldier's transportation to the Indian Health Service in Fort Belknap, about 47 miles away. Health center personnel said he needed to be taken to Northern Montana Hospital in Havre, just a few blocks from the jail.
At the hospital, Longsoldier was given Ativan and Cymbalta, to address symptoms of anxiety, agitation, nausea, inability to sleep, eat or drink fluids and for visual and auditory hallucinations. The doctor wrote prescriptions for both medications and ordered the deputy be given six doses of Ativan, to be given to Longsoldier every four hours, until the prescriptions could be filled. The deputy was not given the Ativan and the prescriptions were never filled.
Longsoldier was returned to the jail by 9 p.m. on Nov. 20. At around 3 a.m. the next morning, jail personnel told the Blaine County dispatcher that Longsoldier might have to return to the hospital because he had not eaten or slept, had the dry heaves and was "hot, burning up." The dispatcher said she called the hospital, where a nurse told her that Longsoldier's blood work showed no signs of illness and speculated that he was "playing them."
Longsoldier continued to hallucinate for the next 20 hours. Late Sunday evening, jail personnel found Longsoldier "shivering and nonresponsive" in his cell. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance and died about two hours later.
Spear's order said the officers did not discriminate against Longsoldier because the medical advice given by the nurse gave them reasonable grounds to deny or delay medical help. He also said they lacked training in the care and treatment of people suffering from alcohol withdrawal and did not know their failure to act placed Longsoldier in danger of dying.
However, the commission found that both sheriff's departments were aware that Longsoldier's prescriptions were not filled, which commissioners said amounted to discriminatory indifference to his medical needs based on his disability.
Commissioners also expressed concern about the apparent lack of training of officers in both counties regarding the symptoms and dangers of medically unsupported alcohol withdrawal and called for Spear's new order to include a training mandate.
Mark Higgins, the attorney for Blaine County, said the county was disappointed with the commission's decision.