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Michigan jail death leads to FBI, ACLU moves

By David Shortell CNN

(CNN) -- The death of a Michigan man in jail has spurred an FBI inquiry and a request from the American Civil Liberties Union for a federal investigation into the sentencing practice that landed him there.

David Stojcevski entered the Macomb County Jail on June 11, 2014, to serve a 30-day sentence over unpaid traffic tickets. Sixteen days later, he was naked on the floor of an isolation cell and nearly 50 pounds lighter, video from the Macomb County Sheriff's Office and a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of his estate show. The evening of June 27, he was dead.

Stojcevski died of "acute withdrawal" after "deliberately indifferent" medical care from jail staff and officers, the suit alleges.

In a letter dated Monday, the ACLU called his death an "incomprehensible tragedy," saying "it is unconscionable that Mr. Stojcevski was in jail in the first place."

Stojcevski was sent to Macomb County Jail under a "pay or stay" sentence, the ACLU said in a letter to the Justice Department requesting an investigation, after he was unable to pay $772 in overdue traffic tickets.

A court transcript of Stojcevski's June 2014 hearing before Roseville District Judge Joseph Boedeker obtained by CNN shows Stojcevski, brought in on a warrant based on the traffic citations after an unrelated disturbance, was told to pay his fines or go to jail.

"The amount you owe now is $772 total," the transcript quotes the court as saying. "So you'll have to pay that or 30 days in jail. As soon as you pay you can be released."

According to the ACLU, this type of sentencing is illegal.

" 'Pay or stay' sentences are unconstitutional when they result in harsher punishment -- that is, incarceration -- for defendants who lack the ability to pay," the ACLU wrote in the letter.

"If Mr. Stojcevski had been wealthy, he could have paid the $772 and gone home. Because he was poor, he ended up in jail, where he died," the ACLU said.

In a memo regarding the Stojcevski sentencing, the court wrote Stojcevski was fined after being held in contempt for twice failing to appear on the traffic citations.

"The defendant failed to give any explanation as to why he did not pay or make a good faith effort to obtain the funds required for payment," the memo reads. "As a result ... the court held the defendant in contempt."

The court that sentenced Stojcevski to jail is not the only body to come under scrutiny.

In September, the FBI met with Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham to review the circumstances of Stojcevski's death, according to the sheriff's office. The next week, the Detroit FBI office officially opened an investigation into the death, FBI spokeswoman Jill Washburn confirmed to CNN.

In a statement, Wickersham said, "I promote transparency within my office and look forward to the findings of the FBI."

"Any death that occurs in the Macomb County Jail is tragic, not only to the family of the deceased, but to the men and women of the Sheriff's Office who oversee the care and custody of our 1,200 inmates daily. Due to the current lawsuit, I am unable to comment on the in-custody death," the statement continued.

The FBI review comes after a civil suit filed in federal court in June alleged Wickersham as well as Macomb County Jail medical staff and others acted with "deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs" of Stojcevski, resulting in his death.

Upon medical inspection in the jail, the suit says, Stojcevski told jail staff members he had been taking Xanax, oxycodone and Klonopin pills daily.

"All of the named defendants herein were so deliberately indifferent to David's mental health and medical needs, that the defendants ... monitored, watched and observed David spend the final 10 days of his life suffering excruciating benzodiazepine withdrawal symptoms," the suit alleges.

The suit asks for damages as related to Stojcevski's death and an overhaul in hiring and training practices for individuals responsible for inmate care.

John Schapka, an attorney for Macomb County, said he is confident his clients acted lawfully.

"The deputies were not deliberately indifferent as to Mr. Stojcevski's situation. They complied with their legal obligations," Schapka said.

An attorney for Correct Care Solutions, named in the suit as a contracted health care provider for Macomb County Jail, referred questions about the litigation to the company.

An spokeswoman for Correct Care Solutions said she could not comment on the lawsuit but defended the company's record in a statement.

"While we were saddened by this tragic event, we strongly disagree with the recent media portrayal of this case," said Karla West, director of communications for Correct Care Solutions. "We take our responsibilities to provide quality care to our patients very seriously, and support the efforts of our staff in this regard."

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