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Video: Inmate's Ebola claim clears courtroom

Inmate claimed he had Ebola, so judge took precautionary measures and had 150 inmates and 100 corrections personnel evacuated

By Linda Trischitta
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE — Broward County's busiest court was disrupted Friday and its biggest jail was locked down for four hours after a judge cleared a courtroom because an arrestee allegedly told police he had Ebola.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue hazmat responders wearing protective gear took the man to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, where he was found not to be infected with the potentially lethal virus, the Broward Sheriff's Office said.

At least 250 people -- 150 inmates and 100 corrections personnel, all inside the jail -- could have been exposed to Ebola had the inmate been sick, said Lt. Col. Keith Neely, who administers the county's department of detention.

In chambers before court began, Broward Judge John "Jay" Hurley had read a Fort Lauderdale police arrest report for Joseph L. Britton, 42, of Lake Worth.

It said Britton had gotten off a water taxi at the 15th Street Fisheries restaurant Thursday. Staffers said Britton lit a cigarette near gas tanks on the docks, then licked his hand and put it on an employee. He was asked to leave. Britton told officers, "I have Ebola," according to one of Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Michael Gelberg's reports.

On Friday morning, Britton was facing battery and disorderly conduct charges and was among 92 arrestees waiting in several courtrooms to appear on video before Hurley.

But before Hurley began calling cases from the morning docket, he informed court personnel about the Ebola claim and told Detention Deputy Rodney McDuffie in the main jail, "I believe you should clear the courtroom of all prisoners."

McDuffie led them out, and Britton was briefly left behind, alone.

Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said Hurley's order prompted isolation of Britton in a cell, his contact with others was limited and the hazmat team responded.

"We considered it a dress rehearsal," Israel said about the urgent law enforcement response. He said the Fort Lauderdale police officer didn't alert the jail about Britton's Ebola comment that was described in the arrest report.

"We only look at the charges," Israel said. "It's not our job to read the [probable cause affidavit.]"

Fort Lauderdale police said in an email Friday that its officers' attempts to describe Britton's behavior were misunderstood; that Britton's statements, including cursing, were documented to show his intent to create a disturbance and that no Ebola symptoms were observed.

Fort Lauderdale police also said that Britton ultimately denied making the claim.

Israel said that after conversations with a relative and Homeland Security, investigators determined that Britton had not left the country. The agency also said new arrestees are examined for symptoms of Ebola and temperatures above 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit and are asked about foreign travel or acquaintances' trips.

Britton underwent that exam Thursday night, Broward Sheriff's spokeswoman Veda Coleman-Wright said.

Late Friday, costs for the emergency response were not yet calculated and Britton was not expected to face additional charges, Coleman-Wright said.

Israel said copycats who falsely claim illness would be prosecuted.

The Ebola virus has killed more than 4,400 people in Africa. The virus is likely carried by bats and can lead to extreme dehydration and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ebola is transmitted by touching the bodily fluids of sick or dead persons or animals, needles or other contaminated objects, the CDC said. Patients can experience headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. There is no FDA-approved vaccine or drug to treat it.

A traveler who visited Africa became sick with Ebola and died in Texas on Oct. 8. Two nurses who treated him became infected and are being treated for the virus.

Friday's events were not the first time an Ebola infection claim prompted lockdown of a jail. In Georgia, a man charged with driving under the influence said he'd recently returned from Nigeria and had flu-like symptoms, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on Oct. 11. It was found that the man was not sick and hadn't been out of the country since 2005. He was charged with three felony counts of making false statements, according to the newspaper.

Hurley said that based on news reports, he felt his decision to clear the courtroom was appropriate.

"I didn't pull a fire alarm," Hurley said "I tried to tell everyone what [the police report] said, to make sure it was being dealt with. I felt it was proper to address it. I'd hate to not do anything, and be wrong."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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