BERRIEN CO., GA (WALB) - Sheriff Anthony Heath pleaded guilty Wednesday morning to two counts of violating the civil rights of two non-resistant arrestees by using excessive force against them.
County officials said Heath was removed from office following the guilty plea and Chief Deputy Ray Paulk was appointed as sheriff until the November election.
A sentencing date has been set for September 28.
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, only identified as M. V.
Heath and multiple deputies followed M.V. into the woods, where a deputy eventually saw M.V. and arrested him without incident.
When a deputy reported that the man was in custody, Heath ordered deputies to wait and hold him 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.
Prosecutors said Heath kicked him in the ribs, punched him in the head with a closed fist multiple times and forcefully kneed him in the ribs multiple times.
During a separate incident, on Oct. 1, 2014, prosecutors said Heath repeatedly punched and kicked an arrestee, identified only as J.H., even though the man surrendered, laid down on the ground and did not attempt to flee or threaten anyone at any point after his arrest.
"As sheriff, Heath held the highest-ranking law enforcement position in Berrien County, but he violated the public trust when he chose to break the law and beat compliant arrestees," said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Gupta. "Our Constitution prohibits officers from using excessive and unnecessary force against non-resistant arrestees, and the Justice Department will continue to aggressively prosecute cases where law enforcement officers abuse their authority."
"The people place tremendous power in the hands of someone they elect as county sheriff, and do so in faith that such power will be wielded appropriately," said Acting U.S. Attorney Peterman. "The motto of our Sheriff's in Georgia has traditionally been 'To Serve and To Protect.' Sheriff Heath abused that power and broke faith with those who elected him by physically abusing those he was sworn to protect."
The case is being investigated by the FBI.
According to county officials, if Heath resigns there are 2 options.
He can take himself of the ballot or the county will have a hearing to see if he can stay on the ballot.
Right now there are 3 other people trying to qualify as independents, including the current Chief Deputy.