Nov. 23, 2006 — -- Roughly 3 million Americans live with epilepsy. And a surprising number of them go to jail for it.
Why? Around the country, police officers and bystanders who see someone having a seizure mistake it for disorderly, criminal behavior.
That's what happened to Daniel Beloungea of Pontiac, Mich. On most days Daniel lives the normal life of a 48-year-old single man. But roughly once a week, he loses total control of his body and mind to an epileptic seizure.
A seizure took over Beloungea's body while walking through his suburban Detroit neighborhood last April. When an onlooker in a neighbor's house saw Beloungea having the seizure, which includes rapid repetitive arm motion, she misinterpreted it as criminal conduct. Specifically, she thought Beloungea was masturbating in public.
With that misconception in mind, she called the police. When the Oakland County Sheriff's Department arrived on the scene, Beloungea was still undergoing his seizure, acting disoriented and not responding to questions.
When officers couldn't get through to Beloungea they drew their weapons, shocked him with a high-voltage taser, hit him with a baton and wrestled him to the ground. They then handcuffed him and put him in a police car.
Oakland County Undersheriff Michael McCabe said that the officers tasered Beloungea because he lunged at one of them. Beloungea and his lawyer say the more police got physical the more Beloungea got agitated and aggressive -- typical behavior, according to the Epilepsy Foundation of America, for a person restrained while having a partial complex seizure. Beloungea's wild motions and inability to communicate were not defiance or resistance, but classic symptoms of epilepsy
The officers put Beloungea in jail, citing assault of a police officer and resisting arrest. Throughout the incident Beloungea, was wearing a medical alert bracelet identifying him as an epileptic, stating his name and the contact numbers of people who can be reached in case of an emergency.
Later, Michigan state psychologists who examined Beloungea would confirm that he was having a seizure at the time of his arrest and that he was no danger to himself or to others.
The Epilepsy Foundation of America said it sees cases like Beloungea's around the country. The foundation said it could cite more than a dozen cases of police violence toward people in the midst of a seizure over the past 10 years. In 1999, Joaquin Gonzales died after he was arrested and hog tied while having an epileptic seizure in a Taos County, N.M., jail. County officials fired the guards on duty that night and paid Gonzales' family a $1.25 million settlement for his wrongful death.
Eric Hargis, the Epilepsy Foundation's CEO, cites one common aspect in each of those incidents: Police should have been better trained to recognize the seizure and not to use force on an epileptic.
"It's fairly easy, really, with limited amount of training for a police or other emergency first responder to be able to spot a seizure … this didn't have to take place," Hargis told ABC News.
"All [Beloungea] is guilty of is having a medical condition that resulted in a seizure."
The foundation sent a short set of guidelines to police departments around the country to help officers recognize and deal with victims of such seizures, but the Oakland County Sheriff's office claimed never to have heard of it until after Beloungea's case.
When most people think of epileptic seizures, they think of people shaking on the ground -- symptoms of what's called a tonic-clonic or grand mal seizure. What Beloungea goes through is called a partial complex seizure, and it's actually more common.
A partial complex seizure does not come with the violent shaking symptoms most people associate with epilepsy. It involves a spell of unorganized, unintentional behavior: picking at clothes, chewing motions, and wandering aimlessly.
The Epilepsy Foundation said that the best thing police or bystanders can do when they see someone undergoing a seizure is to not restrain the person. Rather, they should simply let the seizure pass, watch to make sure the seizure sufferer is not in harm's way, and comfort the person when it ends. Call 911 if the episode lasts more than 5 to 7 minutes, the group advises.
Beloungea was ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. Beloungea is not insane -- he's simply epileptic. But his lawyer, Otis Underwood, told ABC News there was no other way to get Beloungea off the charges than the insanity defense. The catch: He had to spend 20 days locked in a criminal mental facility.
Beloungea said he's still waiting for an apology from the Oakland Sheriff's Office. What would Beloungea say if he could address them directly?
"I would say, 'In a situation like mine, look for a medical bracelet. Pay attention to what you're doing, know your job. Don't just grab a taser gun … 50,000 volts in a situation like mine could kill a person.'"
Beloungea's case is closed, for now. He's just hoping police will know better next time his body betrays him.
November is National Epilepsy Awareness Month.