Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin’s constitutional legal immunity does not protect her from allegations by a blogger that she had personal motives for misconduct, a federal judge ruled this week, and the case should proceed to trial.
“Sheriff Franklin has cited no authority for the proposition that a sheriff acts within the line and scope of her employment when she engages in bribery, intimidation, and other misconduct to silence a private citizen who has been publicly critical of the sheriff,” District Judge Madeline Haikala wrote.
While Alabama sheriffs are immune from liability for conduct performed in the scope of their employment, Haikala wrote, claims by Glenda Lockhart against Franklin allege “conduct undertaken for some personal motive to further some personal interest and not as a part of Sheriff Franklin’s official duties.”
The order rejected a motion by Franklin to dismiss portions of Lockhart’s lawsuit, filed in October 2016. The lawsuit alleges Franklin and some of her deputies bribed Lockhart’s grandson to collect information from Lockhart’s office and computers. They used the information, according to the lawsuit, to obtain a warrant for an illegal search of Lockhart’s business and to justify seizure of her computers. In addition to Franklin, the lawsuit names deputies Blake Robinson and Robert Wilson, and information technology employee Justin Powell.
The purpose of the defendants’ actions, according to Lockhart’s complaint, was to intimidate Lockhart and to silence her Morgan County Whistleblower blog, which has for years been critical of Franklin and the two deputies.
Haikala’s order was not a judgment on the evidence of the case. Her ruling simply means that Lockhart can prevail at trial if she presents evidence to a jury backing up the allegations of her complaint. Franklin has denied most of those allegations.
One of Franklin’s lawyers, Robert Spence of Birmingham, filed the motion to dismiss. He did not return a call Tuesday. In his motion, he pointed to a section of the Alabama constitution that declares the state shall never be made a defendant in a lawsuit.
“Sheriffs in Alabama are absolutely immune from suits for damages based upon their official acts, by virtue of their positions as executive officers of the state of Alabama,” Spence wrote.
Handicapping Franklin’s legal arguments is the fact that the same Morgan County circuit judge who authorized the search of Lockhart’s business later ruled the search was illegal.
In April, after two days of testimony, Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson ruled that Franklin “deliberately misled this court for the purposes of obtaining search warrants for Leon Bradley’s residence and Glenda Lockhart’s business known as Straightline Drywall.”
Bradley was the warden of the Morgan County Jail in October 2016, when the warrants were issued. Franklin alleged he was leaking confidential Sheriff’s Office information to Lockhart, fired him, and requested that the Etowah County Sheriff’s Office file charges against him. Thompson suppressed all evidence obtained in the two searches and dismissed the misdemeanor charges that had been filed against Bradley. Lockhart was never charged.
Thompson ruled that Franklin, deputies Blake Robinson and Robert Wilson, and information technology employee Justin Powell — all of whom testified at the April hearing — participated in illegal conduct designed to retaliate against Bradley and Lockhart for the blog.
The four Sheriff’s Office employees “endeavored to hide or cover up their deception and criminal actions under the color of law,” Thompson wrote.
William Gray of Birmingham, one of Franklin’s lawyers, said Thompson’s ruling should have no weight beyond its effect in dismissing the misdemeanor charge against Bradley.
“That order discusses things that were not before Judge Thompson, and I don’t think his ruling is binding on the federal court,” Gray said Tuesday.
He said he is confident Franklin will win the case once the evidence comes out.
In a separate ruling Monday, Haikala also rejected a similar motion to dismiss filed by Robinson and Wilson.
Haikala’s ruling could also be relevant to two other lawsuits against Franklin involving Lockhart’s blog.
In July, Bradley filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against Franklin, Robinson, Wilson, Powell and the Sheriff’s Office. The lawsuit, which alleges the Sheriff’s Office has been an ongoing criminal enterprise under the direction of Franklin, focuses on Franklin’s alleged retaliation against Bradley and on her alleged efforts to silence Lockhart’s blog. In a pending motion to dismiss, the defendants argue they are immune from suit. Bradley’s lawyers have filed a motion to consolidate his case with Lockhart’s.
Bradley’s lawyer, Nick Heatherly, said immunity is important for law enforcement when they are acting in the scope of their employment, but he praised Haikala’s order.
“Those officers should be working to maintain the integrity of the profession,” Heatherly said. “Law enforcement has a difficult enough job as it is. They don’t need their own people making it more difficult on them. What (Franklin and the other defendants) did is a black eye to all the good officers.
“I think Judge Haikala’s decision denying the sheriff’s motion to dismiss is a win for the good guys.”
A third lawsuit against Franklin involving Lockhart's blog was filed by former deputy Rick Sherman. The federal wrongful termination suit alleges he was fired because the sheriff thought he was cooperating with Lockhart. The judge in that case has not ruled on Franklin’s motion to dismiss the complaint.