Appeals Court Refuses To Grant Immunity To Sheriff Who Engaged In Extortion To Go After A Whistleblower

from the act-like-a-thug,-win-thug-prizes dept

A couple of years ago, we covered the story of an exceptionally corrupt Alabama sheriff. Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin — picking up where her predecessor, Sheriff Greg Bartlett left off — was accused of starving prisoners to pad her personal checking account.

This is a thing in Alabama. Sheriffs are allowed to use leftover food funds (obtained from both state and federal sources) as a personal source of income. Use it they did. One sheriff bought himself a house with the “excess” funds. The sheriff Ana Franklin replaced was so notorious for cutting food costs, he earned the nickname “Sheriff Corndog.”

Sheriff Franklin went further than the man she replaced. She went after a whistleblower who caught her taking $160,000 from the prisoner food account and handing $150,000 of that to a shady car dealership run by a convicted felon.

Franklin also targeted the whistleblower — former Morgan County jail warden Leon Bradley — with bogus criminal charges. To do so, the sheriff’s office went after a local blogger who was publishing the warden’s allegations, paying the blogger’s grandson to install a keylogger on her computer. Using evidence gleaned from the keylogger, the sheriff then went after the former warden, hitting Bradley with misdemeanor government records tampering. These charges were dropped by the presiding judge — the one that had issued the search warrant — who said the Sheriff’s office had “deliberately misled the court” to “cover up their deception and criminal actions.”

Bradley sued the Sheriff and a handful of deputies. The lower court refused to grant immunity to any of the Sheriff’s Office defendants on any of the 14 counts in Bradley’s lawsuit. Not only was qualified immunity denied, but so were the state-level forms, including state-agent immunity and absolute immunity.

The defendants appealed. The Eleventh Circuit Appeals Court has taken a look at the allegations and is no more willing to extend immunity to Sheriff Franklin and her deputies. (h/t Eric Goldman)

The sheriff hoped to have the state’s expansive absolute immunity doctrine applied to her abuse of power, but the appeals court isn’t interested in turning Alabama state law into a shield for bad cops. The sheriff tried to persuade the court that anything done while officers were on the clock cannot be sued over. Yeah, we’re not doing that, says the Eleventh Circuit [PDF].

According to the defendants, even if their activities were ill-intended, the actions occurred during the course of police investigations, evidence seizures, and the like, such that absolute immunity still applies. This view requires an extraordinarily broad view of absolute immunity that would effectively immunize any conduct when the sheriff flashes his or her badge. The district court correctly rejected this view because Alabama law does not provide such infinite immunity. The allegations in the complaint extend well beyond the negligent mishandling of an investigation or sloppiness in executing a search warrant, or any other number of activities that could fairly advance the objectives of the sheriff, even if the sheriff’s actions suffered from procedural defects. Rather, the alleged activities paint a picture of a lengthy conspiracy to defraud the taxpayer, use public funds for personal gain, and punish anyone who threatened to publicize their activities. As the district court noted, the defendants cannot explain how these allegations would fit within the scope of their employment.

The same goes for the defendants’ attempt to have qualified immunity applied to their actions. The working theory here is the same: that anything done with a badge out while on the clock shouldn’t be subject to civil lawsuits.The Appeals Court rejects this attempt to expand immunity protections.

The defendants urge us to find that Bradley’s Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment claims are barred under the doctrine of qualified immunity. The district court rejected this argument, finding that the defendants were unable to meet their burden of showing that their alleged acts fell within the scope of their discretionary authority. Rather, Bradley alleged that the defendants had engaged in extortion to collect information on him, then knowingly violated the law by lying to a judge to secure a search warrant.


[T]heir argument is unworkable in practice. If qualified immunity applies to these allegations, then it is difficult to envision any limiting principle, similar to the problem noted in the absolute immunity analysis, where any malfeasance does not receive immunity owing to the presence of a sheriff’s badge.

There’s no good faith shown here either. Immunity protects the actions of “reasonable” officers. Nothing here approaches “reasonable.”

It is harder to think of a better example of knowingly violating a plaintiff’s constitutional rights than the allegation, which we are bound to accept as true, that the defendants facilitated the installation of an unauthorized keylogger on Bradley’s computer, misled a judge to secure an invalid search warrant, then raided Bradley’s home. Said another way, these allegations are the antithesis of the type for which one might be entitled to “good faith” immunity.

The lawsuit lives and Sheriff Ana Franklin will have to face all 14 counts brought against her. The same for two of her deputies. The sheriff could have stopped starving inmates and enriching herself at their expense, but instead she decided to engage in extortion and illegal searches. It seems like corruption may be the only thing she knows. Too bad for her that she sucks at it.

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Comments on “Appeals Court Refuses To Grant Immunity To Sheriff Who Engaged In Extortion To Go After A Whistleblower”

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David says:

This is not the big problem.

There just is no way that it should be legal for a sheriff to personally pocket the difference between food funds and food costs. This is such an obvious conflict of interest that it’s utterly insane, and it shouldn’t just be the court of public opinion that is bothered by it.

Sure, the officers here broke a whole lot of laws going after the whistleblower, but the whistleblower appears to have blown the whistle on practices that are abominable but for some unfathomable reason covered by law. And that most definitely needs changing.

Anonymous Coward says:

Tip of the iceberg.
Some folk think they are entitled to privileges not officially granted, they simply take and/or do whatever they please and get quite upset when told that is not allowed. Sorta like children when caught, they squirm twist and convulse trying to get out of their self created problems and then they get mad when they realize they are not getting out of it that easy.

Courts have in the past given out stern hand slappings for this type of behavior and the present perps do not understand why they are being held accountable for their actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

George Wallace was said by both colleagues and constituents (of both races) to be the fairest and least biased judge in the state of Alabama; the only one who would treat blacks and whites equally in the courtroom.

George Wallace was one of the most blatantly racist men to have ever had a serious run for President. Even compared to Andrew Jackson.

This says a lot about Alabama.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

They have one of the fastest auto racing tracks in the world, a suspiciously unstoppable college football team, the fifth-most diverse ecosystem of the States, the U.S. Army command center, the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, and American headquarters and factories for Hyundai and Mercedes. That’s about all the good stuff.

Also has the highest obesity and laziness rates, the most F5 tornadoes, some very broiling summers, and 9th in most deaths caused by thunderstorms.

Anonymous Coward says:

"As the district court noted, the defendants cannot explain how these allegations would fit within the scope of their employment."

and interesting observation. I would love to know how the appeals court would square this with the finding just a few days ago essentially saying "That Cops Stealing Your Stuff Doesn’t Violate The Constitution"
Were they they actually trying to make the case that cops stealing from people fits within the scope of their employment ?

Anton Sherwood (profile) says:

Re: Clearly Established

I think the difference is that there’s plenty of precedent holding that it’s wrong to, for example, get a warrant by lying to a judge; whereas no cop had ever previously been found liable (to an individual) for falsifying the record of a seizure so they could pocket part of it.

The owners of the property in that other case couldn’t simply go after the cops for theft because technically (because the stuff was in State custody) they stole from the State, which has discretion not to prosecute.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Ah the rare species of a judge with a spine

It’s both good, and sad that it is worthy of note, to see some judges that don’t immediately remove their spines the second that someone with a badge enters the room. Now, if they can just follow the refusal to grant qualified/total immunity up with some personal penalties to really drive the point home that’d be great.

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