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Williams v. Mannis

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 10, 2018

Renee S. Williams, Bankruptcy Trustee (originally named as Seneca Thornton) Plaintiff-Appellee
Dean Mannis, Individually and in His Official Capacity Defendant-Appellant Arkansas Municipal League; Stuttgart Police Department; Mike Smith, Police Chief, Individually and in His Official Capacity; Steven Bobo, Deputy Police Chief, Individually and In His Official Capacity; City of Stuttgart; Arkansas County; Arkansas County Sheriffs Department; Alan Cheek, Sheriff, Individually and In His Official Capacity; Bobby Dumond, Individually and In His Official Capacity; Lloyd Pace, Individually and In His Official Capacity; Arkansas State Police; Scott Russell, Individually and In His Official Capacity Defendant's,

          Submitted: March 13, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas - Pine Bluff

          Before WOLLMAN, SHEPHERD, and ERICKSON, Circuit Judges.

          ERICKSON, Circuit Judge.

         In 2014, Seneca Thornton was employed as a patrol officer by the Stuttgart (Arkansas) Police Department. On August 19, 2014, he was summoned into the Arkansas County (Arkansas) prosecutor's office and informed that "audio and video evidence" suggested that Thornton had purchased Xanax illegally from a confidential informant. In spite of this evidence, the prosecutor told him that because the police chief "had a lot on his plate, " the prosecution was willing to forego any charges if Thornton would "just resign and turn in his badge . . . and he would be free to go work somewhere else." Thornton declined the invitation to resign and was eventually both fired and charged in the Arkansas County Circuit Court with purchasing Xanax from a confidential informant. At trial Thornton was acquitted of all charges.

         Thornton brought this action[1] against the City of Stuttgart, the Arkansas Municipal League, Arkansas County, three law enforcement agencies, and several law enforcement officers from the agencies involved in the investigation. Thornton alleges that Appellant Dean Mannis and other law enforcement defendants conspired to destroy Thornton professionally and personally by framing him on knowingly false drug charges. Thornton claims that the defendants were motivated by a racial animus as he was the only African-American patrol officer employed by the Stuttgart Police Department.

         A number of defendants were dismissed out of the case on motion for various reasons, and eventually summary judgment was sought by Mannis, the City of Stuttgart, Stuttgart Police Department Chief of Police Mike Smith, Stuttgart Police Department Deputy Police Chief Steven Bobo, and Arkansas State Police Special Agent Scott Russell. The motion was granted as to all defendants but Mannis. Mannis sought summary judgment on theories of qualified immunity and state statutory immunity. The district court denied Mannis's motion in part and allowed to proceed a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deliberate conduct that shocks the conscience and a state law claim for outrage.

         We have jurisdiction over this interlocutory appeal of a denial of qualified immunity because it involves a question of law. See Jackson v. Gutzmer, 866 F.3d 969, 975 (8th Cir. 2017) ("The pretrial denial of qualified immunity is an appealable final order to the extent it turns on an issue of law."). We have supplemental jurisdiction on the state statutory immunity claim. See Trammell v. Wright, 2016 Ark. 147, 489 S.W.3d 636, 638 (Ark. 2016) (interlocutory appeal of denial of immunity is allowed as "the right of immunity from suit is effectively lost if a case is permitted to go to trial"). We reverse.

         I. Background

         We view the facts in a light most favorable to Thornton, the non-moving party. Dean Mannis was a detective with the Stuttgart Police Department. He also was the employer of a housekeeper and erstwhile confidential informant, Jennifer Carpenter. In March 2014, Carpenter told Mannis that she was familiar with Thornton from his prior work at Wal-Mart and that she knew he had been involved with illegal drugs three or four years earlier. She intimated that she was willing to see if Thornton would illegally purchase drugs from her. Carpenter's motivation was plain: she was facing two pending felony drug cases, and she wanted to help herself out. Mannis's motivations are disputed, but he had suspicions that Thornton was living beyond his apparent means as a patrol officer.

         A few days later, Carpenter told Mannis that she had received text messages from Thornton asking for Xanax.[2] Mannis helped arrange a controlled sale, and on March 9, 2014, a meeting took place between Carpenter and Thornton. Prior to the meeting, Carpenter and the vehicle she was driving were searched, and law enforcement confirmed that she was in possession of Xanax. When Carpenter arrived at Thornton's house, he was in the front yard talking to a neighbor. Thornton walked over to the vehicle, opened the front passenger door, stuck his head inside, and spoke to Carpenter for a short time before she drove away. According to Thornton, Carpenter said she was running low on gas and had to leave. Following the encounter, Carpenter and the vehicle were searched again, and no Xanax pills were found. Law enforcement did not stop Thornton or make any attempt to verify that he was in possession of the Xanax. Thornton denies ever receiving Xanax from Carpenter.

         Shortly after the initial encounter, Carpenter told Mannis that Thornton was interested in buying more Xanax. After speaking to Thornton on the phone, Carpenter and Thornton met at the Wal-Mart parking lot on March 27, 2014. Thornton testified that, during the phone call, Carpenter told him she was going through some personal problems and that she wanted to talk to him. Once again Carpenter was searched, given Xanax, and dropped off at the store by law enforcement. A short time later, Thornton arrived, and when Carpenter saw him, she exited the store and got into his car. According to Thornton, Carpenter told him she was shopping with a friend and needed to go back into the store. She exited the vehicle and was shortly thereafter searched, and no Xanax was found on her. Thornton denies having received any Xanax, and he was never searched or stopped by law enforcement. While efforts had been made to obtain audio and video surveillance of the alleged transaction, no usable evidence was obtained.

         When Thornton was summoned to the Arkansas County Attorney's office, he met with prosecuting attorney Robert Dittrich who informed him that he was the subject of a drug investigation. Dittrich indicated the county was interested in resolving the matter quietly and if he were willing to "quietly resign, " they would see to it that they did not limit his ability to work. Thornton refused to resign, and in early September 2014, Mannis obtained an arrest warrant. Thornton voluntarily surrendered as soon as he became aware of the warrant. He was charged in Arkansas County Circuit Court with obtaining a controlled substance by fraud, a felony; unlawful use of a communication device, a felony; and possession of alprazolam, a misdemeanor. Thornton was fired by the Stuttgart Police Department the next day.

         Thornton's case was tried to a jury in January 2015. Neither felony charge survived a motion for judgment of acquittal at the close of the state's evidence. The jury deliberated for only forty-four minutes before returning a not guilty verdict on the remaining misdemeanor charge. Following the acquittal, Thornton was rehired by the Stuttgart Police Department. According to Thornton, after he was rehired, three individuals approached ...

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