Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Ronny Todd May said he was trying to help a woman he had just met who was having car trouble.
But after he was pulled over for running a red light, four Utah Highway Patrol troopers "savagely" beat him and deployed a Taser in an effort to get him to spit out something they saw him swallow, his attorney said.
"What they did wrong here — it was like a feeding frenzy to beat the daylights out of him," attorney Bob Sykes said Friday. "It's excessive force. ... It was a significant violation to Todd May's constitutional rights to beat him severely to get him to spit something out."
May said he and the woman were driving to his private investigator office in Ogden when he was pulled over by UHP trooper Brandon Whitehead for allegedly running a red light and following the woman at "an extremely unsafe distance." Dash cam video shows that May took a few extra turns after the officer initiated his lights before stopping the car at his office parking lot.
In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, May claims he did that to avoid construction and the busy roads. He also accuses four UHP troopers of using excessive force during the traffice stop: Whitehead, Jared Patterson, Joshua Porter and E. Prescott. As many as five unnamed individuals are also named in the complaint.
After May and the woman, identified under the alias Tracy Smith in court documents, stopped their cars, Whitehead wrote in his report that Smith told them that May had methamphetamine.
"Arguably, the stop is legal," Sykes said. "We don't believe that was said (by Smith), but assuming it was, it gives officers probable cause to search."
May said he told officers that he had prescription methamphetamine. Sykes explained the prescription was for Desoxyn, a methamphetamine hydrochloride tablet used by May to treat narcolepsy.
Using Smith's information, the officers began to search May and asked him to remove his shoes. He removed one, then the other before grabbing something from his shoe and placing it in his mouth.
The situation escalated as officers repeatedly told May to spit it out. According to the lawsuit, May was placed in a chokehold before being punched in the face and laid face down on the ground while as many as four officers took part in attempts to restrain him.
The video shows one officer repeatedly hitting the man in the back amid commands to "stop resisting." Sykes insists May was not resisting arrest. Whitehead wrote in his report that May "continued to resist."
"I was concerned of the situation to such a degree that I radioed three separate times for additional officers to assist controlling the situation," Whitehead wrote. "During the ground fight, May had such a physical stamina and strength I was concerned and aware of the distinct likelihood he was in an excited delirium state."
One officer deployed a Taser. Sykes said the Taser was placed on May's skin multiple times. He showed photos of May with a swollen, black eye. He said his client's head was forced to the pavement with such force that he sustained a concussion. His gutteral screams and groans can clearly be heard on the video.
"There's no excuse for the beating ... a beating so severe for something so mild," Sykes said, adding that there is a difference between reasonable force and excessive force. "You can't beat someone mercilessly to spit something out, even if it's evidence."
May said he routinely keeps his prescription medication in a baggy in his shoe, though he usually removes it from the bag before swallowing it. Whitehead said the bag contained a "loose granular white substance." May said the tablet may have been crushed in his shoe.
"I don't like to leave my medicine around because of what it is. I keep it in the safest place I can," May said.
He said he didn't spit out the baggy because he had already swallowed it.
"I took my medication," he said. "It was the wrong thing to do at the time. I realize that now."
Sykes reiterated that May had made a bad decision, but said it still didn't warrant the officers' actions.
"It wasn't very smart of Todd to do what he did here. That brought the right of police to use force, but you can't use excessive force," Sykes said, smacking the table with his hand to emphasize the last four words. "You can't put a chokehold on somebody. That's excessive. It could kill him. ... You don't dog pile like it's a football game because he swallowed something."
May said watching the video is difficult and causes him to relive the pain of the incident. He said he is "a little bit bitter" toward the officers involved.
"I wasn't expecting anything like that," May said. "They wouldn't quit Tasing me, wouldn't quit beating me. I actually thought for a minute there that they were going to kill me."
The lawsuit asks for at least $250,000 in damages.
"I'm hoping for justice for Todd May," Sykes said. "No one should have to undergo a beating like this. ... These officers need to pay for what they did."
UHP spokesman Dwayne Baird said Friday he couldn't comment on the case because it is still being investigated by the Weber County Attorney's Office. The officers involved have not been placed on leave.
"We've been reviewing this since the day after (it happened) because not only of the situation you see there, but because we had troopers that were hurt," Baird said. "We had injuries to this individual, this man, Todd May, and we review those procedures and we have processes in place that we do that with."
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