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Jones v. Barrett

United States District Court, M.D. Georgia, Athens Division

March 19, 2018

RENEE A. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
ZACH BARRETT and JACOB PALMER, Defendants.

          ORDER

          CLAY D. LAND CHIEF U.S. DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         ORDER 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.

         As to 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.

         SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         Summary 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.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the record reveals the following facts.

         I. The Plan

         Defendant 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.

         The 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 drugs.

         One or 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.

         Rodney 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.

         Although 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.[1]

         Defendants 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 issue.

         First, 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.

         II. The Operation

         On 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 114:7-116:10.

         Rodney 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.

         It is 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 ...


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