Debunking the Myth of Positional Asphyxia: A Case Study in Law Enforcement

May 21
In criminal justice, misconceptions can take root and shape policy and practice, sometimes with serious consequences.

One such example is the theory of positional asphyxia, which gained traction in the 1990s as an explanation for deaths that occurred during or after physical restraint by law enforcement officers. However, a closer examination reveals that this theory may not hold up under scientific scrutiny.

Positional asphyxia is defined as the inability to breathe freely due to the body being placed in a position that restricts airflow, potentially leading to unconsciousness or death.

It became widely accepted as a cause of death in cases where individuals died shortly after being restrained, particularly if they had engaged in vigorous physical activity prior to being restrained.

One such case involved Daniel Price, a methamphetamine user who died while being restrained by San Diego County deputy sheriffs.

The medical examiner concluded that Price's death was due to restrictive asphyxia resulting from the use of a technique known as hogtying, where the individual's wrists and ankles are bound together behind their back.

However, this conclusion was challenged during the Price v. County of San Diego trial, where scientific research contradicted the theory of positional asphyxia.

Dr. Thomas Newman conducted a study that refuted the claims made by Dr. Donald T Reay, the leading proponent of positional asphyxia, regarding the effects of physical exertion and restraint on blood oxygen levels ["].

Dr. Newman's research found that hogtying did not significantly affect blood oxygen or carbon dioxide levels, undermining the basis of the positional asphyxia hypothesis.

The court ultimately ruled that hogtying, when used to restrain violent individuals, did not constitute excessive force and was reasonable under the circumstances.

This case serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of accepting theories without sufficient scientific evidence.

While well-meaning experts may propose logical explanations for complex phenomena, it is essential to subject these theories to rigorous scrutiny before adopting them as incontrovertible truths.

In law enforcement, where lives are at stake, relying on evidence-based practices is paramount. By challenging prevailing myths and embracing scientific research, law enforcement agencies can better protect both officers and the communities they serve.

The debunking of the positional asphyxia theory highlights the importance of critical thinking and empirical evidence in shaping policy and practice in the criminal justice system.

For more detailed insights into the debunking of positional asphyxia, you can refer to the comprehensive article by Gary W. DeLand titled "The Positional Asphyxia Hypothesis, Part One: Fact or Fiction?"

This article can be found in the "Resources" section of your student portal if you have attended an EFC Instructor Certification Course.