Federal court removes Harrison Co. sheriff as defendant in lawsuit

Published 5:40 pm Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A federal appeals court has dismissed the Harrison County sheriff as defendant in a lawsuit filed by a man who says he was mistakenly held for four months at the local jail.

The decision, released Monday by a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, leaves plaintiff Donald E. Harris with no one to sue.

Sheriff George H. Payne Jr. was the only remaining defendant in the lawsuit filed by Harris. Payne had asked the 5th Circuit Court to remove him as a defendant. Harris has asked the court to reinstate the other defendants dismissed by a judge in 2006.

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Harris claims he was mistakenly transported to the jail in Harrison County after being arrested and posting bond on a DUI charge in Forrest County in 2002.

U.S. District Judge Stanwood R. Duval in New Orleans on Aug. 31, 2006, dismissed Harrison County supervisors and a list of Payne’s employees from the lawsuit. Duval also dismissed the sheriff in his official capacity, but ordered Payne kept in the suit on an individual basis.

The 5th Circuit upheld Duval’s decision on the other defendants but reversed Duval on leaving Payne as the sole defendant.

“Payne’s actions were, at most, negligent, and therefore do not give rise to a constitutional claim,” the appeals court said.

Harris originally was arrested in Forrest County on Sept. 28, 2002, and charged with drunken driving. After being held for three days, he posted bond and was to be released.

According to court documents, he was re-arrested after Forrest County jailers received a fax from the Harrison County jail that said Harris was wanted in Harrison County on separate charges. Harris was taken to the Harrison County jail.

Lawyers for Harris said the Harrison County warrant named another Donald Harris with no middle name and a different Social Security number. It also sought a man in his late 30s. Harris, a construction and oilfield worker, was in his late 40s at the time. Further, Donald E. Harris is white. The Donald Harris being sought was black.

Harris’ lawsuit also claims he personally told Payne not long after the arrest that he was the wrong man.

Harris remained in the jail four months until a public defender visited him and discovered the mistake, according to court documents.

Harris settled his claim against officials in Forrest County for an undisclosed sum.

The Harrison County defendants said they were protected by from the lawsuit by the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. MTCA controls all lawsuits for negligence brought against the state or local governments and public officials. The law puts limits on damages that can be sought against a governmental body.

“It is clear that the Harrison County system failed Harris at every point, and the fact that a clearly innocent individual can be held for four months without a court appearance or verification of his identity gives us great concern.

“However, the actions of the individual defendants sued by Harris and involved in this appeal amounted to no more than negligence, which is insufficient to create a constitutional claim or to fall outside the protection of the MTCA,” the appeals court said.

Monday’s ruling was issued by a panel of three 5th Circuit judges — Edward Charles Prado, James L. Dennis and Edith Brown Clement.