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Sanders v. Itawamba County

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

August 13, 2018

DAVID LEE SANDERS PLAINTIFF
v.
ITAWAMBA COUNTY, ET AL. DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROY PERCY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         On August 7, 2018, plaintiff David Lee Sanders, an inmate confined at the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, appeared before the Court for a hearing pursuant to Spears v. McCotter, 766 F.2d 179 (5th Cir. 1985), to determine whether there exists a justiciable basis for his claim filed under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. A plaintiff's claim will be dismissed if “it lacks an arguable basis in law or fact, such as when a prisoner alleges the violation of a legal interest that does not exist.” Martin v. Scott, 156 F.3d 578 (5th Cir. 1998) (citations omitted). The Prison Litigation Reform Act applies to this case because the plaintiff was incarcerated when he filed this lawsuit. Sanders having consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c), the undersigned has the authority to enter this order and the accompanying final judgment.

         I. Plaintiff's Allegations[1]

         Sanders claims that he was being held on misdemeanor charges at the Itawamba County Jail on December 18, 2012, when he was assaulted by Jailer Greg Wilmon, who found tobacco on Sanders' person and charged him with possession of contraband in a detention facility. Sanders states that Wilmon, along with Itawamba County Sheriff Chris Dickerson and Jail Administrator Vicky Russell, regularly allowed the inmates to smoke tobacco, and that he was charged with having contraband just to “cover-up” Wilmon's alleged assault.[2]

         On January 23, 2013, Sanders pleaded guilty to the Itawamba County contraband offense and was given a fifteen-year sentence, to run consecutively to a Monroe County grand larceny charge for which he was given a ten-year suspended sentence. See, e.g., Doc. #1 at 15-19 in Sanders v. Itawamba County, Cause No. 1:16cv142 (N.D. Miss.). The trial court credited Sanders with time served and suspended the remainder of the contraband sentence contingent upon his compliance with post-release supervision requirements. Id. at 15. In November 2013, however, Sanders was arrested and charged with burglary of a dwelling and grand larceny in Itawamba County, and his post-release supervision for the contraband offense was revoked. See, e.g., id. at 24 & 30. During his Spears hearing, Sanders confirmed that his post-release supervision for the Monroe County grand larceny offense was also revoked on the same day. By order entered on December 18, 2013, Sanders was ordered to serve a five-year sentence, with the sentence to run consecutively to his previously-suspended Monroe County sentence. See Doc. #23-4 in Sanders v. Itawamba County, Cause No. 1:16cv142 (N.D. Miss.). In 2014, Sanders was also convicted of burglary and grand larceny offenses in Chickasaw County and is under a sentence of imprisonment for those offenses. See https://www.ms.gov/mdoc/inmate (search by “Last Name” and “First Name”) (last visited August 9, 2018).

         Sanders later sought federal habeas relief and State post-conviction relief, arguing that he was charged with a non-existent felony for possessing tobacco.[3] The State court agreed, and by order entered May 17, 2018, Sanders' conviction and sentence for possession of contraband in a detention facility was set aside.

         Thereafter, Sanders filed the instant § 1983 action, alleging that jail personnel, the attorneys, and the judge all knew the relevant law and ignored it to secure his wrongful conviction for a non-existent felony. He asks the Court to award him monetary damages for the Defendants' actions.

         II. Immunities

         Circuit Court Judge James L. Roberts is entitled to be dismissed from this action, as he has absolute judicial immunity from suit for actions taken in a judicial capacity. See, e.g., Stump v. Sparkman, 435 U.S. 349, 351-64 (1978). Accepting a plea and sentencing a defendant are functions normally performed by judges, and therefore, Roberts is immune from suit. See Forrester v. White, 484 U.S. 519, 227 (1988) (noting “immunity is justified and defined by the functions it protects and serves, not by the person to whom it attaches”) (emphasis in original).

         Similarly, Sanders cannot maintain suit against the prosecutors in this action, as “a state prosecuting attorney who act[s] within the scope of h[er] duties in initiating and pursuing a criminal prosecution” is not amenable to suit under § 1983. Imbler v. Pachtman, 424 U.S. 409, 410 (1976); Boyd v. Biggers, 31 F.3d 279, 285 (5th Cir. 1994) (prosecutor immune from action alleging knowing use of perjured testimony, malicious prosecution, and conspiring with judge). Because prosecutors have absolute immunity for activities connected with judicial proceedings, Defendants Nebora Porter and Jerrolyn Owens must be dismissed from this action. See, e.g., Imbler, 424 U.S. at 431 (providing protection for prosecutor's conduct “in initiating a prosecution”).

         Next, the Court finds that Sanders cannot assert a claim for damages against the Mississippi Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) or the State itself, as each is entitled to sovereign immunity pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment of the Constitution. U.S. Const.

         Amend XI; Perez v. Region 20 Educ. Service Ctr., 307 F.3d 318, 326 (5th Cir. 2002); Williams v. Miss. Dep't of Corr., No. 3: 12cv259-CWR-FKB, 2012 WL 2052101 at *1 (S. D. Miss. June 6, 2012) (noting MDOC is entitled to immunity as arm of the State); see also Miss. Code Ann. § 47-5-1, et seq. Therefore, MDOC and the State are entitled to be dismissed from this suit.

         III. “State actor” requirement

         The Court finds that Sanders' public defender, Christopher Bauer, is not amenable to suit, as relief under § 1983 is only available to vindicate a plaintiff's federal rights against a defendant acting under color of state law. 42 U.S.C. § 1983. “[A] lawyer representing a client is not, by virtue of being an officer of the court, a state actor ‘under color of state law' within the meaning of § ...


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