U.S. Judge denies county’s attempt to end lawsuit filed by Como police chief 11/4/2014

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 4, 2014

U.S. Judge denies county’s attempt to end lawsuit filed by Como police chief

By John Howell
U. S. District Judge Michael P. Mills in an October 20 order denied a defense motion for summary judgment in a civil lawsuit filed by Como Police Chief Earl Burdette and Deputy Chief Cornelia Fay Pettis against Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby and Panola County through its board of supervisors.

The judge’s order denying the motion for summary judgment allows the lawsuit to proceed.
The lawsuit stems from a Nov. 14, 2013 physical altercation between the Como police officers and the sheriff and deputies at the Como Police Station during the investigation of a shooting that had occurred a short time earlier at the Como Apartments. Following the confrontation inside the police station, Burdette was taken into custody in handcuffs and held for several hours afterward.

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Burdette and Pettis later filed suit, citing alleged use of excessive force and wrongful arrest among their complaints. Daniel Griffith of the Griffith and Griffith law firm of Cleveland, who is defending the county and sheriff as legal representative of the county’s liability insurance carrier, subsequently filed a response that denied all substantive claims by plaintiffs.

The county’s response — citing “qualified immunity (that) shields a governmental official from suit based on the performance of discretionary functions if the official’s acts did not violate clearly established constitutional or statutory law …,” — also sought summary judgment from the court that would have, in effect, ended the lawsuit. 

Judge Mills’ nine-page order frequently cites statements from an audio recording made by Deputy Emily Harris during the sequence of events in the Como police station.

“According to Chief Burdette, Sheriff Darby and his deputies arrested him without provocation,” the order states. “The audio recording does not directly and definitively contradict this assertion,” the judge continues, denying summary judgment in the excessive force claim.

Addressing the defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the false arrest claim, the judge acknowledges a threatening statement captured on the audio made by Burdette.

“The question becomes whether the statement ‘I’ll kick your (expletive) (expletive)’ rises to the level of probable cause to arrest Chief Burdette for simple assault,” Mills states.

“Several minutes passed, with a calm period between when Chief Burdette made the statement and when he was arrested,” the judge continues.

“It strikes the court that if Sheriff Darby was in fear of imminent serious bodily harm after the statement, he should have arrested Chief Burdette immediately.”

The judge also notes that Burdette was never charged with a crime. “

“A genuine question of material fact remains as to whether Sheriff Darby had probable cause to arrest Chief Burdette,” Judge Mills adds, stating his denial for the summary judgment on the wrongful arrest claim.

“What happened in the Como police station is disputed, and the audio tape is far from clear,” Judge Mills’ states in the order. “The events at the center of this lawsuit seem to be the result of a seething personal conflict and an internecine power struggle between the Panola County sheriff’s department and the Como police department. Mace and handcuffs elevated picayunish strife into a federal law suit.”