Judge dismisses lawsuit against Sheriff Amerson (updated)
by Cameron Steele
Aug 31, 2012 | 9535 views |  0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A federal judge has dismissed the one remaining claim in a civil rights lawsuit against Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson.

Rather than send the case to trial, Judge Robert B. Propst, of the Northern District of Alabama, ruled to drop the claim in a summary judgment filed Thursday afternoon.

“This court concludes that there was no Constitutional violation because there was no excessive force; there was only de mininis physical or mental injury, if any injury,” the final order reads.

Propst heard arguments from attorneys for the defense and plaintiff a little over a month ago. The lawsuit originally was filed almost a year-and-a-half ago.

Read the Memorandum Opinion | Read the Final Judgement

"This case has dogged him and dogged him unnecessarily, the sheriff acted reasonably in this case," defense attorney Randy McNeill said. "I hope this order goes a long way in helping to clear his good name that didn't need to be cleared in the first place."

Anniston resident Stacy Brown filed suit against the sheriff and Deputy Wendell Ward in April 2011, claiming the two verbally and physically abused her then-14-year-old son when he spent a day in a Calhoun County Jail program for teens.

At the July conference, the claims against Ward were dropped — as were most of the claims against Amerson.

Afterward, the sheriff faced only a claim of excessive force — based on a surveillance video that shows Amerson using manual force against the boy, identified only as “J.B.,” who is shackled, handcuffed and dressed in an inmate’s jumpsuit.

Amerson said he was pleased at the outcome of the suit.

Defense lawyers in May requested that Propst rule summarily in the case in lieu of a trial. Meanwhile, plaintiff’s attorneys were fighting that request, stating the suit needed to be heard by a jury.

Last week, they filed a 15-page brief to back the claim that Amerson used excessive force in his interaction with J.B. and, as a result, should be tried by jurors.

“The issue of whether excessive force occurred and the determination of the value of J.B.’s damages should be decided by a jury,” the plaintiff’s brief stated.

In response, defense attorneys filed an opposing argument, again underlining case law to support their stance that Amerson acted reasonably toward J.B., who had been misbehaving and was, according to the sheriff, about to spit on him at the time of their interaction.

Any injuries caused to J.B. as a result of Amerson’s actions are “de minimis,” the defense claimed. Or, in other words, injuries that a person would expect to occur after a law enforcement officer used reasonable force.

“Reasonableness from the perspective of the law enforcement officer is the appropriate perspective for analysis,” the response by the defense read.

Defense attorneys also argued Amerson was entitled to qualified immunity, something that protects law enforcement officers from suits based on the actions they take while on the job. McNeill called those arguments "solid," especially considering the surveillance video and records from Coosa Valley Youth services, a juvenile detention center, showed no real evidence of injury.

"He didn't have a scratch or bruise that was visible," McNeill said.

The plaintiff's attorneys had filed a photograph of J.B. that they said showed injuries around his neck, but the judge ruled the picture did not conclusively prove that.

"Even a slight bruise cannot be truly perceived from an examination of the photograph," Propst states in his final order. "Plaintiff never sought nor received any medical examination or treatment for any purported physical or mental injury."

In the end, Propst upheld the defense's argument, stating, "even if it could be reasonably argued that there is a question of fact as to whether there was a Constitional Fourth Amendment violation, the defendant Amerson is entitled to prevail on his qualified immunity defense."

Attempts Wednesday and Thursday to reach plaintiff's attorneys by phone and by email were unsuccessful. As a result, it was unclear whether they would try to appeal Propst's decision.

After the July conference, plaintiff’s attorney Peyton Faulk had said she felt confident the case would go to trial sometime this fall.

Amerson said there's still one outstanding issue surrounding the events that led to the lawsuit. The Star first published the video of Amerson and J.B.'s interaction after an anonymous source provided a paper with a copy of the surveillance clip. Whoever did that broke the law by making public a piece of evidence in a juvenile case, the sheriff said.

"The Star knows who did this and has chosen to keep that a secret," he said.

Amerson criticized the paper for its coverage of the suit and the events that led to it.

"Nobody waited until it went to court," he said. "They just put it on the front page with the pre-judgement I did wrong.

"I used to everyday enjoy reading a newspaper. I'll never again get pleasure out of picking up a newspaper."

Brown had sought $500,000 in damages for the remaining claim against Amerson.

Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.

Star staff writer Brian Anderson contributed reporting to this story.
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