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Georgia City Reaches $350,000 Settlement with Black Man Who Was Violently Detained Last Year Over Mistaken Identity

Officials in a south Georgia city are ready to pay out a Black man police officers injured during an attempted arrest last year, The Associated Press and other outlets reported last week. The victim later turned out not to be the person authorities were looking for.

Antonio Arnelo Smith, of Valdosta, Georgia, sued Valdosta police in U.S. District Court nearly a year ago, stating that officers used excessive force and violated his civil rights. Figures named in the suit included Valdosta Police Sgt. Billy Wheeler, Valdosta Mayor Scott James Matheson, Valdosta Police Chief Leslie Manahan, and Valdosta Officer Dominic Henry, as well as members of the Valdosta City Council, and officers Patrick Barrett and Hudson Durden

On Feb. 8, 2020, Smith was sustained non-life-threatening injuries when then-Sgt. Wheeler slammed the now-47-year-old man to the ground, breaking his wrist, the Valdosta Daily Times reported. Authorities denied any wrongdoing.

$350,000 settlement offered in police takedown of the wrong man in Valdosta, Georgia. – Bexarcounty.com

The altercation took place after cops responded to a call that a man was harassing customers and asking for money outside a drugstore. Officers found two men, one being Smith, that fit the description. The other man had an outstanding warrant. 

Bodycam footage obtained by the outlet showed Smith cooperatively talking to a Black police officer when a white officer, Sgt. Wheeler — who has since been promoted to lieutenant — came up from behind him, pinned Smith’s hands behind his back, and slammed him face-first to the ground. Two more white officers held Smith down and handcuffed him right before informing him that he was being arrested on an outstanding warrant. At that point another cop interjected, revealing Smith was not the man on the scene with the warrant. Smith was let go without charges, and he left before paramedics could arrive on the scene.

On Thursday, June 10, the Valdosta City Council proposed a settlement of $350,000 in exchange that he dropped all claims in his lawsuit. A spokeswoman for Valdosta City Hall, Ashlyn Johnson, confirmed the settlement offer on Friday, June 11. 

One of Smith’s attorneys, Nathaniel Haugabrook, said the following day in a statement that he was still reviewing the proposal. “I imagine at this point it will move at lightning speed, in terms of a resolution.” He noted that his client was hoping to “see all of this behind him.” In his suit, Smith had initially sought after $700,000 and for the creation of a citizen, panel to help oversee the VPD — a stipulation the city has also offered. 

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