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Burdette v. Panola County, Mississippi

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

October 20, 2014

PANOLA COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, by and through its board of supervisors; DENNIS DARBY, in his individual capacity, and JOHN DOES 1-10, DEFENDANTS

For Earl Burdette, Cornelia Fay Pettis, Plaintiffs: Edward Blackmon, Janessa E. Blackmon, Jr, LEAD ATTORNEYS, BLACKMON & BLACKMON, Canton, MS.

For Panola County, Mississippi by and through its Board of Supervisors, Panola Co. Sheriff Dennis Darby in his individual capacity, Defendants: Daniel J. Griffith, LEAD ATTORNEY, GRIFFITH & GRIFFITH, Cleveland, MS.

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This cause comes before the court on defendants' motion for summary judgment. Having reviewed the filings, briefs, and exhibits, the court is prepared rule.

Plaintiffs Earl Burdette and Cornelia Faye Pettis work for the Como, Mississippi police department, Burdette as Chief and Pettis as Assistant Chief. Defendants are Panola County, Mississippi and Dennis Darby, the elected sheriff of Panola County. Plaintiffs allege (1) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on excessive force, wrongful arrest, and a policy, plan or custom of using unreasonable force and failure to train; (2) conspiracy to violate 42 U.S.C. § 1983; and (3) intentional infliction of emotional distress, all arising out of events taking place on November 14, 2013. The thrust of Plaintiffs' complaint are the § 1983 excessive force and wrongful arrest claims. Defendants raise the defense of qualified immunity and seek summary judgment.


One November afternoon in Como, Mississippi, one man insulted another, mentally

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retarded man. A third man took offense. He got a rifle and quarreled with the first man. A shot rang out. The first volley fired, the skirmishers fled. Though neither of the scufflers was injured, their efforts were not entirely wasted as a fourth gentleman observer found himself shot in the leg. Such ill-plotted encounters oft lead to unforeseen contretemps. One Mr. Tracy Wilbourn, a witness, retrieved the discarded rifle, and proceeded to attempt to turn it into the Como Police. Finding the police station closed, Mr. Wilbourn called Assisstant Chief Faye Pettis to turn over the gun and provide a statement. Thus begins our adventure.

Como Police Chief Earl Burdette, off duty and minding his own business, was chopping wood on his property when he was called to respond to the aforementioned shooting in Como. Having been alerted, Chief Burdette left the woods to meet Assistant Chief Cornelia Faye Pettis at the Como police station. En route, Chief Burdette called the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation for assistance. The MBI sent agent Heath Farish, who met Chief Burdette and Assistant Chief Pettis at the police station. The three then went to meet Mr. Wilbourn at the apartments where the crime had occurred. They arrived at the crime scene to find the Panola County sheriff's department already investigating. Chief Burdette found the witness, Mr. Wilbourn, whose mother agreed to let him talk to the Como police at the police station. The witness climbed into Chief Burdette's car, and Chief Burdette started to drive away. Panola County Sheriff Dennis Darby saw Chief Burdette driving away with the witness. He yelled at Chief Burdette to stop the car so that he could interview the witness. Chief Burdette stopped to talk to Sheriff Darby, but sped off when Sheriff Darby tried to open the passenger door of Chief Burdette's car to retrieve the witness. Sheriff Darby and his deputies then went to the Como police station to get the witness back. Tensions between the Panola County Sheriff and the Como Police were escalating. Approaching the Como police station, Sheriff Darby stated, " I may be fixing to have to arrest him," presumably referring to Chief Burdette, and asked Sheriff's Deputy Emily Griffin if she had any mace. The ensuing events do not constitute law enforcement's finest hour in Panola County.

Police Chief Burdette and Sheriff Darby already had a fraught relationship before the current conflict. Burdette had worked for the sheriff's department before Darby was elected. According to Burdette, when Darby was elected sheriff, Darby told Burdette that Burdette was no longer to talk with the former sheriff or his secretary, even though they were friends outside the office. Burdette eventually left the sheriff's office to become chief of the Como Police Department. According to Chief Burdette, Sheriff Darby warned the Como mayor not to hire Burdette as police chief, or the mayor would risk the sheriff's department not providing any support to the city of Como. Because of his mistrust of the Panola County sheriff's department, Burdette called the Tate County sheriff's department and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to ask for backup when needed.

This background provides context to what happened on November 14, 2013 when Sheriff Darby and his deputies went to the Como police station to get witness Wilbourn. What exactly happened inside the police station is far from clear. It is clear, however, that what should have been mutual accommodation and professional rapport among law enforcement agencies and personnel turned into a physical struggle. As Sheriff ...

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