Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bondsmen Sue County and Sheriff

A local bail bonding company has received a ruling from the United States 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allowing the plaintiffs to move forward with their federal lawsuit accusing Tunica County and Tunica County Sheriff KC Hamp of violations of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Owners of Hampton Company National Security LLC, James Hampton Gardner, and employee James Dean of Tunica filed a Section 1983 suit against Tunica County and Sheriff Hamp in 2006. The suits alleges violations of their constitutional rights under the Due Process and the Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the First Amendments of the United States Constitution.

It was filed after owners and Dean claimed that Hamp removed their company name from the list of approved bail bondsmen, thereby taking their source of livelihood. According to court records, Hamp removed the plaintiffs from the list between February of 2005 through December of 2006. They claim their removal was caused by the sherifff’s retaliation “for Gardner and Dean’s participation in exposing illegal conduct by the prior sheriff, and for criticizing Hamp,” and that “the decision was racially motivated.”

Hamp argues that the Plaintiffs’ removal was because three criminal defendants they bonded failed to appear at a scheduled arraignment and that they did not follow proper procedure in obtaining a receipt from the Circuit Clerk proving those bond obligations had been met.

The case went before 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judges King, Higginbotham, and Southwick. In their ruling on Sept. 18, the trio gave the plaintiffs the right to proceed with the case.

“A surety company and two of its agents appeal from a summary judgment that dismissed their various Section 1983 claims,” the ruling states. “We affirm that part of the judgment that dismissed a Due Process claim against the sheriff who barred them from writing bail bonds in one county. Finding disputes of material fact, we reverse judgment on that same claim against the county, and on the First Amendment and Equal Protection claims against both the sheriff and the county based on the same events...”

The 5th Circuit Court ruled that of relevance is that the plaintiffs are white Caucasian and Sheriff Hamp is African-American.

In 2007, U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson dismissed the suit against the county and sheriff stating that the sheriff had suspended both black and white bondsmen at the same time for similar reasons. Plaintiffs disagree arguing that while both companies produced the required remedies for misconduct, only their company remained suspended after doing so.

In the September 2008 ruling, the Court of Appeals stated that while Hamp falls under “Qualified Immunity” on the Due Process claim in barring their writing of bonds in Tunica County, Tunica County does not noting.The sheriff’s decision to deny the plaintiffs the right to issue bonds was noted as “the kind of single decision by the relevant policymaker that can be the basis of liability.”

The Court of Appeals further ruled that they do not dispute that Hamp prohibited the Plaintiffs from writing bonds in Tunica County, but did state that in dispute were the “sheriff’s reasons”.

The court also ruled that on the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause claim were two components; the initial removal from the approved roster and the continued removal of the white bail bondsmen from the approved list while shortly after their removal, the black bail bondsmen were reinstated.

“There is no qualified immunity for racial discrimination as such discrimination is clearly unconstitutional. The County would also be liable if all the elements for municipal liability are shown. Consequently, we reverse judgment on the Equal Protection claim as to both defendants and remand,” the ruling states.

The final claim states that Hamp’s actions violated the plaintiffs’ first amendment rights . They allege that Hamp removed them from the list because they “assisted in the investigation of the predecessor sheriff regarding the extortion of bail-bonding companies, and because they sent a letter to the local newspaper editor expressing concern over Hamp’s handling of bail bondsmen and that an editorial was published only two months before the Plaintiffs were removed as approved bondsmen”. The Court of Appeals noted a prior case (Baldwin, 250 F.3d at 945) involving the Tunica County Sheriff that the Court of Appeals remanded to trial. In the cited case, the sheriff was found to have retaliated when bail bondsmen complained about how the sheriff handled bonds and ruled “the failure to reinstate the Plaintiff’s distinguishes the entire action by the sheriff against these plaintiffs from his entire action against the other bail bondsmen.” Summary judgement was not awarded in this matter.

During an interview with agent James Dean of Hampton Co National Surety LLC, Dean stated that he and owners have not yet been notified of the date their case will go to federal court. Facts discussed in this article were taken directly from court records posted online at www.ca5.uscourts.gov.

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