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Jury deliberating Tuggle vs. Hill case

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A jury went into deliberations at about 3:10 p.m., Thursday, to decide if the Clayton County sheriff violated the U.S. Constitution when his former rival's brother was arrested.

George Mark Tuggle alleges that Sheriff Victor Hill personally ordered his arrest in January 2004 and distributed his mugshot to the media, in retribution for two angry phone messages left at the sheriff's office.

Tuggle maintains that Hill wanted to arrest him, and made it public as a way to tell everybody "a new sheriff is in town," and he wouldn't suffer criticism.

Hill and his attorneys have countered that the sheriff had almost nothing to do with the arrest, and everything that happened is part of the normal, legally protected procedures of a sheriff's office doing its duty.

The civil jury of eight has been asked to decide if Hill did violate Tuggle's First and Fourth Amendment rights -- and if he did, to award Tuggle punitive damages.

The federal jury had not concluded its deliberations Thursday evening, and was set to resume on Friday morning.

William J. Atkins, Tuggle's attorney, has cast the case as a defense of a citizen's right to express displeasure with an elected, public official. Atkins asked Hill if he'd ever considered meeting with Tuggle, who had asked for a meeting in his angry phone calls, and Hill said he wasn't interested in talking to the man.

"You wanted him to stop calling your office." Atkins said, when he had Hill on the witness stand Wednesday morning.

"Yes," Hill said. "That's right."

Hill said he thought he was very tolerant of Tuggle, in arresting him for the two phone calls. He argued that the man had, in fact, been illegally harassing him.

"You realize you're different from a 'Joe Blow' on the street whose ex-wife calls him on the phone and calls him a [expletive]?" Atkins asked.

"No, I disagree," Hill said. "Public officials aren't supposed to have the law broken against them, either."

Some witnesses said Hill, when hearing a recorded phone message from Tuggle, said, "I want him locked up." The sheriff testified he didn't remember what Tuggle said, but recalled instructing his command staff to "deal with it," and "do what you normally do."

Hill also said he didn't remember anything about the mugshot, which was released to the news media showing Tuggle wearing an orange, jail jumpsuit. He said the lieutenant, captain and major on shift in the jail division could have released the photo upon request.

Atkins countered that Hill had actually fired the lieutenant, captain and major, which was what angered Tuggle, and the office was in a "hectic mess" on Jan. 4, leaving only Hill able to issue orders.

"Procedures in the jail would have had to come from you," Atkins said.

The attorney found a newspaper report in which Hill was quoted as saying: "I'm sure he won't be calling my office anymore." Hill said the quote was accurate, but taken out of context. Asked how, exactly, he said the media got 90 percent of everything wrong and mired his administration in controversy and misunderstanding.

James Dearing, representing the sheriff, told the jurors there are two crucial questions they should ask in deliberations: One, "Was what was done reasonable?" and, two, "Did the sheriff have anything to do with it?"

Dearing told the jury Tuggle had verbally abused people previously who were campaigning for Hill. He said the former sheriff's brother, who considered himself to be entitled to special treatment, was and still is mad about the 2004 election.

Tuggle's uncontrolled anger started the case, Dearing said, and motivated the lawsuit being deciding almost four years later.

"Let me tell you what this case is really, really about," Dearing said. "It's about entitlement, jealousy, and a refusal to accept change ... Unbeknownst to you, you are now involved in the 2004 election. It's cloaked in other things, but that's what it's about."

The jury is expected to reach a verdict Friday.