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Legal battle, Tuggle v. Sheriff Hill, continues

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

Of the more than 12 federal lawsuits filed against the Clayton County sheriff since he took office in 2005, one of the oldest is still caught in the side-currents of the justice system.

Last week, attorneys in the case argued about the need for oral arguments, in an appeal of a dismissal of a summary judgment.

The plaintiff's attorney is confident, though, that the fight between Sheriff Victor Hill and George Mark Tuggle, the former sheriff's brother, will eventually make it to trial, and the facts will be heard by a jury.

"One way or another, this is going to trial," said William J. Atkins. "Hopefully, sooner rather than later."

Atkins represents Tuggle, who was arrested on Jan. 4, 2005, after allegedly making harassing phone calls to Hill's office. Tuggle reportedly called Hill's office on Jan. 3, the first day of Hill's administration, after Hill beat the sitting sheriff, Stanley Tuggle, in the 2004 election.

Mark Tuggle, after seeing TV news reports of mass firings at the sheriff's office, reportedly called and referred to Hill as "that little, short, lil' [expletive] sheriff of y'alls."

Hill, hearing the message, allegedly said, "I want him locked up."

The case was dismissed by the Solicitor General's Office, because even though Tuggle admits he called the sheriff and left a message containing at least one foul word, he did not make "repeated phone calls."

After the charges were dismissed, Tuggle moved against the current sheriff with a civil suit. His complaint was filed with the federal court in February 2006. Tuggle contends his arrest was politically motivated, and violated his First Amendment right to free speech and Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

Hill and his attorneys argue that the sheriff did not do anything wrong, and say he didn't order Tuggle's arrest, but just told his deputies to follow proper procedures.

In a summary of Hill's defense, filed with the federal appeals court, one of the attorneys writes, "Sheriff Hill engaged in no sinister plot or broke any rule."

Hill's attorneys also maintain he is protected from lawsuits like Tuggle's, by the immunity of his office, because Hill did everything he did as a part of his "discretionary authority" as sheriff.

The sheriff's attorneys tried to get the suit thrown out with a summary judgment, but the federal judge dismissed that motion. The judge passed down a 20-page document with the ruling, reviewing the case and finding that the sheriff, who is an elected office, couldn't reasonably interpret Tuggle's phone calls as threatening or harassing.

Since then, the case has been in the appeals court, as the sheriff's attorneys attempt to get the dismissal of the motion for summary judgment overturned.

Both sides have said they aren't interested in any settlement, and will fight until completely vindicated.

Both sides now wait to hear how the court weighs the briefs they filed two years after the first document was filed in the case of Tuggle v. Hill. Both sides are now waiting to move forward in the fight about the appeal, and then on to either a trial or a dismissal.