Jury finds sheriff violated Tuggle's civil rights

Clayton County has been ordered to pay George Mark Tuggle roughly $440 for every minute of the almost 18 hours he wrongly spent in Sheriff Victor Hill's jail.

A federal, civil jury found that Hil violated the civil rights of the former sheriff's brother, when he arrested the man for making critical phone calls to Hill's office.

Tuggle was awarded $475,000 Monday afternoon for the violation of his constitutionally protected right of free speech, and right not to be arrested without cause.

Tuggle was arrested on Jan. 4, the second day of Hill's term, on charges of making harassing phone calls. He called the sheriff's office twice, angry that Hill had fired 27 people from the sheriff's office without notice, or cause.

Tuggle called Hill a "short lil' [expletive]" and "scum." He was arrested the next day, made bond in 18 hours, and the case was later dismissed by prosecutors.

Tuggle's attorney said the arrest was a violation of Tuggle's civil rights and was meant to quash any criticism of the new sheriff.

Hill's attorney said Tuggle was an example of someone who thought he was entitled to special treatment, and couldn't stand the "winds of change" which replaced his brother with the county's first African-American sheriff.

After a four-day trial, a day and a half of deliberation, weekend off and another day of deliberation, the jury eventually sided with Tuggle. The jury of eight came back at about 2:30 p.m., Monday, a week after it was sworn in.

Earlier that morning, after about an hour in the jury room, the jurors said they were split, 7 to 1, and couldn't come to a decision. One juror was holding out for Hill, according to a deputy court clerk, but Judge Orinda D. Evans said they were not yet a "hung jury" and needed to come to some resolution.

The final verdict awarded Tuggle $250,000 in actual damages and $225,000 in punitive damages.

"It's about time someone let Victor know he's not above the law, he's not above the Constitution and he's going to have to pay when he violates someone's civil rights," said William J. Atkins, Tuggle's attorney.

Atkins described the verdict as "an important decision and a big win for the citizens of Clayton County."

The Chairman of the Clayton County Board of Commissioners, Eldrin Bell, a severe critic of Hill's, said the county's taxpayers are on the hook to pay for the verdict. The $475,000 can't be paid with insurance money, because the 2005 insurance funds have been spent on other lawsuits filed against Hill.

"The insurance money is gone," Bell said. "We're completely out of funds for 2005. There are no possibilities there. Any judgment would come out of taxpayer dollars."

Bell said the county attorneys are going to try to get the amount reduced, and were working on an appeal.