United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division
RENEE A. JONES, Plaintiff,
ZACH BARRETT and JACOB PALMER, Defendants.
D. LAND CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.
Plaintiff Renee Jones claims that Defendant Zach Barrett, a
sergeant with the Walton County Sheriff's office, had an
informant named Rodney Jones plant drugs in her car without
her knowledge. Defendant Jacob Palmer, a sheriff's
deputy, later discovered those drugs during a traffic stop.
Plaintiff was arrested for drug possession, but the charges
were subsequently dropped. Plaintiff brought a number of
claims against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and
Georgia law. Defendants filed a summary judgment motion,
arguing that they are entitled to qualified immunity on
Plaintiff's federal claims and official immunity on her
state law claims. In response to Defendants' summary
judgment motion, Plaintiff abandoned her claims against
Palmer and pursued only her claims against Barrett.
See Pl.'s Resp. to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J.
10 n.6, ECF No. 51. Therefore, the Court grants
Defendants' summary judgment motion (ECF No. 43) as to
Plaintiff's claims against Palmer.
her remaining claims against Barrett, the key question is
whether a jury could find that Barrett instructed or
knowingly allowed Rodney to plant drugs in Plaintiff's
car without her knowledge. Based on Plaintiff's version
of the events, the Court finds, as explained below, that a
jury could reach that conclusion. And because a reasonable
law enforcement officer would understand that knowingly
planting illegal contraband on someone and then insisting on
criminal prosecution of that person violates clearly
established law, Barrett is not entitled to qualified
immunity or official immunity on Plaintiff's false
arrest, malicious prosecution, and false imprisonment claims.
The Court thus denies Defendants' summary judgment motion
on those claims. The Court does, however, grant
Defendants' summary judgment motion as to Plaintiff's
Fourteenth Amendment due process claim.
judgment may be granted only “if the movant shows that
there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the
movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”
Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). In determining whether a genuine
dispute of material fact exists to defeat a motion
for summary judgment, the evidence is viewed in the light
most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment,
drawing all justifiable inferences in the opposing
party's favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,
477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A fact is material if it
is relevant or necessary to the outcome of the suit.
Id. at 248. A factual dispute is genuine if
the evidence would allow a reasonable jury to return a
verdict for the nonmoving party. Id.
in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record reveals
the following facts.
Zach Barrett was a sergeant working in the narcotics
investigation unit of the Walton County Sheriff's Office.
The Sheriff told Barrett that he had been receiving
complaints about Plaintiff “trading sexual favors for
crack, ” and he asked Barrett if he “could look
into it.” Barrett Dep. 86:24-87:7, ECF No. 46-2.
Barrett told Defendant Jacob Palmer, a deputy sheriff, that
the Sheriff “wanted [Plaintiff] in jail.” Palmer
Dep. 54:1-5, ECF No. 46-1.
Sheriff gave Barrett Plaintiff's name, general residence
location, and vehicle description. Barrett Dep. 88:23-89:5.
After finding Plaintiff's address in the Sheriff's
computer system, Barrett and other narcotics unit officers
conducted surveillance of Plaintiff's residence. That
surveillance did not reveal any evidence of illegal drug
activity. And, when other deputies conducted a traffic stop
of Plaintiff, they did not find any evidence of illegal
two weeks after their initial meeting about Plaintiff, the
Sheriff asked Barrett about the investigation. The Sheriff
told Barrett that if he did not get Plaintiff arrested, the
Sheriff would do it himself. Barrett Dep. 94:7-10. After that
meeting, Barrett met with Palmer and “stressed the fact
that the sheriff wanted [Plaintiff] in jail.” Palmer
Dep. 57:19-25. Barrett decided to set up a reverse sting
operation; he stated in an interview that he was
“trying to do a good thing and think outside the box
and try to find a way to lock up somebody who just uses
[drugs].” Pl.'s Notice of Filing Original Disc. Ex.
20, Barrett Interview 15:19-15:37 (Jun. 18, 2015)
(hereinafter Barrett Interview), ECF No. 47. To do this, he
needed the help of a confidential informant.
Jones had been a confidential informant for the narcotics
unit on multiple occasions. Narcotics unit deputies asked
Rodney if he knew Plaintiff, and he responded that he had
sold crack cocaine to her in the past and that Plaintiff
traded sex acts for crack. Barrett decided to use Rodney for
the reverse sting operation, and he testified that the plan
was to provide drugs to Rodney and have Rodney attempt an
illegal drug transaction with Plaintiff. Barrett Dep.
93:10-11, 110:4-17, 120:3-10. Rodney was to ask Plaintiff for
a ride in her car and was “to exchange the drugs for
money” when Plaintiff was driving him, but it was also
“fine with” Barrett if Rodney simply
“exchange[d] the ride for the drugs” if Plaintiff
would not buy them. Id. at 111:25-112:11;
accord Tallant Dep. 46:1-6, ECF No. 46-3 (agreeing
that the plan was for Rodney to go to Plaintiff's house
and “try to sell her or give her or exchange or [have]
some anticipated transaction where drugs move from Rodney to
[Plaintiff]”); Pl.'s Notice of Filing Electronic
Media Attach. 1, Narcotics Channel Audio Recording 3:48-3:52
(Feb. 16, 2015), ECF No. 63 (hereinafter Narcotics Channel)
(stating that Plaintiff would “be getting that crack
cocaine in exchange for the ride”). If Rodney was
successful, Barrett would pay him $250, a significant premium
over his typical narcotics unit pay of $40 to $60. Plaintiff
was apparently a high value target. And Rodney was the man
for the job.
Rodney has given conflicting stories of his instructions from
Barrett, one version of Rodney's description of events
would support the conclusion that his job was to get the
drugs into Plaintiff's possession no matter how it was
done. In a letter to the Sheriff weeks later, Rodney stated
that Plaintiff “was innocent” and that the
“dirty deputies gave [him] drugs (cocaine & weed)
to give her, they set her up!!!!” Barrett Dep. Ex. 23,
Letter to Mr. Chapman, ECF No. 46-5 at 57.
contend that Rodney was never told to plant drugs in
Plaintiff's car without her knowledge, see,
e.g., Rodney Jones Decl. ¶¶ 4 & 5, ECF No.
43-1, but when viewed in combination with Rodney's
statement in his letter to the Sheriff, other circumstantial
evidence exists that creates a genuine fact dispute on this
this entire operation must be viewed against the backdrop
that Barrett was under extreme pressure to arrest Plaintiff.
The Sheriff had shamed him by proclaiming that he would have
to go arrest Plaintiff if Barrett could not get the job done.
This scolding occurred after Barrett's more traditional
police methods had produced no results. Second, Barrett
instructed Rodney to “do his best to leave [the crack
cocaine] in the passenger side door so [Plaintiff] can't
get it and stuff it.” Narcotics Channel 3:55-4:03. This
suggests that the purpose of the operation was not to
determine whether Plaintiff would knowingly accept drugs in
exchange for something of value but to make sure that drugs
were placed securely in her car so that they would be found
later by law enforcement officers. As a backup or to justify
a search of her car after a traffic stop, Rodney was given
“loud” marijuana for his car ride with Plaintiff,
so that a strong scent would be left behind either for a
narcotics officer or for a narcotics canine to pick up during
a traffic stop. Narcotics Channel 3:30-3:47. Barrett of
course disputes that he had any intention of planting drugs
on Plaintiff, but it is Plaintiff's version of the
evidence that counts most at summary judgment.
February 16, 2015, deputies gave Rodney crack cocaine and
marijuana in a cigarette pack. The deputies also placed an
electronic device (a “bug”) on Rodney so that the
officers could record his conversation with Plaintiff and
hear it in real time. The sound quality of the equipment
deputies used to monitor the bug in real time was poor, and
one deputy, Timothy Tallant, testified that he could only
hear bits and pieces of the conversation between Rodney and
Plaintiff due to the poor sound quality and a barking dog.
Tallant Dep. 54:4-13. It is not clear from the present record
which bits and pieces Tallant did hear. Barrett admitted that
he could not hear the conversation in real time as clearly as
he could hear the recording after the fact, Barrett Dep.
116:1-3, but he did testify about specific portions of the
conversation that he did hear in real time, id. at
went to Plaintiff's house, and Plaintiff opened the door
when he knocked. It was cold and raining, and Rodney told
Plaintiff he needed a ride and that he would “pay [her]
good.” Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. Ex. 1, Bug
Recording 6:44-6:54, ECF No. 42 ¶ 2. Rodney went into
Plaintiff's house. Plaintiff told Rodney to get out of
her house, but she agreed to give Rodney a ride if he would
not come to her house or call her again. Pl.'s Dep.
84:12-85:2, ECF No. 45. Rodney showed Plaintiff that he had
some marijuana and crack in a cigarette pack. Id. at
90:11-19, 91:5-9, 91:23-92:5, 93:15-94:18. He told Plaintiff
that he would “bless” her with some “good
dope, ” although Plaintiff did not hear him say that
because he said it when she was in the middle of telling him
about how her neighbor's dog had been hit by a car. Bug
Recording 13:00-13:11. Then, Rodney asked Plaintiff if he
could come back over later-he said he would “pay [her]
good.” Id. at 14:08-14:30. Plaintiff said no
several times. Then Rodney said he would give her
“this” plus “fifty dollars.”
Id. Plaintiff replied, “Man, I got dope. I got
dope right now.” Id. Plaintiff later testified
that she did not actually have any drugs in her house; she
just told Rodney she did so he would get out of her house.
Pl.'s Dep. 97:10-19. Plaintiff did ask Rodney,
“what did you do with it? Or did you leave it
here?” Rodney responded, “I'm going to give
it to you in your hands.” Bug Recording 15:04-15:09.
not clear from the present record how much of this
conversation the deputies heard in real time. Barrett did
hear Plaintiff say at some point that she did not smoke crack
anymore because it upset her stomach. Barrett Interview
9:53-10:04. When he heard that, Barrett became concerned that
the reverse sting operation would not ...