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Federal jury to decide Tuggle vs. Hill dispute

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

After almost four years, the battle between the Clayton County Sheriff, and his predecessor's brother, is set to go to trial.

The federal suit, "George Mark Tuggle v. Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill," is scheduled to start next Monday, Sept. 22, at 9:30 a.m., with United States Judge Orinda D. Evans selecting a jury.

The lawsuit comes as Hill is ending his term as sheriff, and it stems from two phone calls made in the span of 20 minutes, on Jan. 3, 2005, the day Hill abruptly and aggressively took office.

George Mark Tuggle, the brother of former sheriff, Stanley Tuggle, called the sheriff's office twice on the day the office changed hands. Depending on who you believe, he either expressed displeasure with an elected official, requesting a meeting and staying within his constitutionally-protected rights, or he made illegal, harassing phone calls.

Tuggle's actual words are basically undisputed. After seeing news reports that Hill fired 27 deputies, escorting them out of the building while snipers were stationed on the roof, Tuggle called the office at 6:17 and about 6:20 p.m. In the first phone call, he left a message for the secretary, saying, "Sherry, this is Mark Tuggle. How 'bout calling me first chance you get. I'd like to get an appointment with that little, short lil' b------ sheriff of y'alls," according to court documents.

In the second phone call, Tuggle spoke to a member of Hill's senior staff, and "did call the Sheriff low-down scum," according to a warrant for Tuggle's arrest, filled out by a deputy on Jan. 3, and served on Jan. 4.

When Hill heard the phone calls, he allegedly said, "I want him locked up."

According to Tuggle's attorney, William J. Atkins, the arrest was retaliation, meant to send a message and silence those who would criticize Hill.

"The issue in the case," Atkins said on Friday, as he delivered subpoenas for the trial, "is just simply that a citizen has the constitutional right to express his displeasure with an elected official."

The sheriff's attorney, James Dearing, has described the suit as frivolous. He said he wasn't authorized by his client to talk about the case on Friday, but he has told the Clayton News Daily that "the sheriff did not do anything wrong. His actions were not malicious. They were based on the facts presented to his office."

The arrest was dismissed, because "harassing phone calls," in the state's legal statute, are described as "repeated" calls, and the county prosecutor said "repeated" meant more than two, according to court documents.

Though he only spent a day in jail, Tuggle believes the arrest violated his rights, and is going to ask the jury for punitive damages. Hill's lawyers will maintain the arrest was warranted, legal, and within the scope of the sheriff's defined duties.

The same arguments were aired in the federal appeal which delayed the jury trial. Dearing argued that the case should be dismissed by the judge because the sheriff has some "qualified immunity," in doing the job of sheriff, but Atkins countered that the immunity doesn't cover everything.

The appeals court ruled the immunity wasn't enough to dismiss the case with "summary judgment," Atkins said, but the argument may still be a valid defense at trial.

Since the motion for summary judgment was rejected and the appeal failed, the dispute is scheduled to go to a jury -- an end both sides have been predicting for years.

In July 2007, Hill said he wanted his "day in court" and vowed he would never settle with Tuggle. Atkins said he and his client "always expected this case to go to trial."