NASHVILLE — The sheriff of Berrien County pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges of using excessive force against suspects in custody, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The sheriff’s office was “vacated” and the chief deputy has assumed his duties, said a Berrien County commissioner.
Anthony Heath pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the civil rights of two non-resistant suspects by using excessive force against them, according to a justice department press release.
“The office of sheriff of Berrien County was immediately vacated and automatically filled by the appointed Chief Deputy of Berrien County, Ray Paulk,” said Steve Sumner, county commissioner. “Sheriff Paulk and the many good men and women of the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office will continue to serve and protect our community.”
Heath’s plea agreement states that a potential sentence on each count could bring “a term of imprisonment of up to 10 years, a fine of up to $250,000, a term of supervised release of up to three years, and a $100 mandatory assessment fee.”
The agreement also states that Heath “forever waives any right to an appeal or any other court review of Defendant’s sentence; this waiver includes any collateral attack on the District Court’s sentence.”
Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Acting U.S. Attorney G.F. Peterman III of the Middle District of Georgia announced the guilty plea Wednesday.
A sentencing date has not yet been set.
According to Heath’s guilty plea, on Jan. 12, 2012, Heath and deputies from the Berrien County Sheriff’s Office were engaged in a foot chase of an individual identified only as M.V., who had been banned from traveling through the county. During the chase, Heath saw M.V. and called out to him, “You better not run or I will beat your a**,” or words to that effect, according to the justice department. M.V. reportedly responded by running into a nearby wooded area.
Heath and deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident. When a deputy reported that M.V. was in custody, Heath reportedly ordered deputies to wait and hold M.V. in the woods. When Heath arrived, M.V. was lying face down on the ground, with his hands handcuffed behind his back and was not resisting arrest, according to the press release.
Heath kicked M.V. in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times, causing M.V. to experience pain and have difficulty breathing, according to the justice department.
During a separate incident, on Oct. 1, 2014, Heath repeatedly punched and kicked a suspect, identified only as J.H., even though J.H. surrendered, lay down on the ground and did not attempt to flee or threaten anyone at any point after his arrest, the justice department said. Heath punched J.H. with sufficient force to cause his own hand to become swollen and bruised; Heath’s punches caused J.H. to bleed from his mouth and to feel pain, the press release said.
The case is being investigated by the FBI. Trial Attorneys Stephen Curran and Mary J. Hahn of the Civil Rights Division’s Criminal Section are prosecuting the case.