JONESBORO — While Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill settling a $300,000 lawsuit with taxpayers’ funds has left a bad taste in the mouths of some residents, the action is entirely legal, said officials.
Residents have blogged about their disappointment in the decision by Clayton County Board of Commissioners to not stand in Hill’s way of using his budget to settle a federal lawsuit.
However, under state law, the board had no choice in the matter, said Commissioner Shana Rooks, who is also a veteran attorney.
“Since the acts to which he was found liable happened while he was sheriff, and now that he is sheriff again, Sheriff Hill can fulfill the satisfaction of that judgment from his budget,” she said. “There are several constitutional officers who the BOC makes a determination as to what the budget is. Once that budget is voted on and passed, we are prohibited from dictating how that budget is spent.”
Ironically, the case law confirming the right of sheriffs to exercise complete control over their budgets stems from a suit involving former DeKalb County Sheriff Sidney Dorsey and the man he was convicted of killing, his successor, Derwin Brown.
Hill used Brown’s murder as the reason he posted armed men on the courthouse roof the day in January 2005 when he took office and fired 27 deputies. Hill said the DeKalb case set a precedent for angry employees exacting revenge on a sitting sheriff. In the Dorsey case, the losing sheriff hired several men to kill Brown. Brown, who beat Dorsey in the 2000 election, had vowed to investigate alleged corruption during the previous administration.
On the day of the firings, former Clayton County Sheriff Stanley Tuggle’s brother, Mark Tuggle, called Hill to discuss the terminations and left two messages. Mark Tuggle reportedly called Hill “a short little (expletive)” in one message and “lowdown scum” in the second.
Hill had Mark Tuggle arrested for terroristic threats. However, the Clayton County State Court Solicitor General dismissed the case seven months later. Mark Tuggle filed a federal civil suit against Hill in February 2006 as an individual and in his official capacity as sheriff. A U.S. District Court jury held Hill responsible for the false arrest and ordered him to pay Mark Tuggle $475,000.
Tuggle’s attorney, Bill Atkins, also sought more than $100,000 in attorneys fees. Because of a confidentiality clause in the settlement, Atkins was restricted in his reaction to the disposition of the case.
“The matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties,” he said, adding that Tuggle has already gotten the money.
Atkins addressed the BOC in June in an attempt to get the judgment owed his client, reminding the board that an extended legal battle would mean even more money spent.
“I was trying to articulate the pros and cons of waiting,” said Atkins. “There was a very real threat that they’d have to pay more legal fees.”
Rooks said Atkins’ argument had no bearing on her position — as a lawyer, she said she knew what the board was up against legally.
“Bill Atkins’ recent address to the BOC had nothing to do with my decision but I know if we litigated the matter, the BOC would not have prevailed,” she said.
The $300,000 bite out of his budget means that Hill will have to forgo the hiring of six corrections officers this year, said county finance officials.
Atkins said that, although he is satisfied that the case is settled, he was surprised that the lawsuit went as far as it did, given that prior case law has ruled that constitutional officers are immune from being sued in their official capacities.
“What has confounded me about this case is that the law is crystal clear, when a sheriff is sued in his official capacity, he is immune from a suit in Federal Court,” he said. “How did Victor’s lawyers never raise that defense?”
Hill’s attorney did not return a request for input on this article.