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.