(CN) – A disabled South Carolina woman who was terrorized by a bail bondsman in search of a fugitive can collect $100,000, the 4th Circuit ruled.
Shirley Gregg, a resident of Sumter County, S.C., was asleep in her bed when bail bondsman Jon E. Ham showed up at her door, armed with a shotgun, and accompanied by Sumter County Senior Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Yelton and several other bail bondsmen.
Several months earlier, Ham had posted a $20,000 bond through his company, Quick Silver Bail Bonds, for Tyis Rose, a man arrested for assault with intent to kill in Florence County, S.C.
When Rose failed to appear for his day in court, the presiding judge issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest. Determined not to lose his $20,000, Ham began searching for Rose, concentrating on the Sumter County community where the fugitive’s parents lived.
Failing for months to locate Rose, Ham finally observed a car he suspected belonged to the fugitive and a chased ensued. The car, which was in fact driven by Rose, ultimately stopped on Gregg’s property.
Gregg, who is mostly homebound because of rheumatoid arthritis, several joint replacements and other ailments, knew Rose’s family, but not well, according to court documents.
Ham waited after Rose ran into nearby woods outside Gregg’s house and claimed that he later saw the fugitive re-emerge from the brush that evening and enter Gregg’s home.
Ham and his party showed up at Gregg’s home early the next morning, pounding on and shaking the front door, demanding to be let in.
Though the men did not have a warrant, Gregg says she let them in and consented to a search of her home because she feared for her life. As Ham poked around, he held a shotgun at chest level. When he was unable to locate Rose, he became agitated and yelled at her until she cried.
Yelton, the deputy, intervened and asked Ham to leave Gregg alone.
After the group left, Gregg called 911 to complain about the search. Because he was still in the area, Yelton responded to the call, but Gregg told him to leave, saying she wanted to speak with his supervisor.
Several of Gregg’s family members also spoke to Ham, telling him not to return to her home. Ham nevertheless showed up again to tell her he was increasing the reward for information about Rose’s whereabouts.
When the family again told him to leave Gregg alone, he allegedly told them “he can do whatever he wanted to do.”
Gregg said the encounters left her frightened and unable to sleep. Ultimately, she sought counseling from a psychologist, who diagnosed her with post-traumatic stress disorder, concluding that her pre-existing disabilities exacerbated the impact of the incident.
Gregg sued Ham and the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department for violations of her civil rights and state tort law. A federal jury found in her favor on trespass and assault claims, awarding her $100,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.
The 4th Circuit affirmed the verdict, rejecting Ham’s claims of qualified immunity.
“There is no need … for qualified immunity to shield bondsmen from suit, as they are not entrusted with a public function,” Judge Albert Diaz wrote for a three-member panel. “To the contrary, while the law certainly allows a bail bondsman to apprehend a fugitive, that right is exercised in tandem with the obligation of law enforcement to accomplish the same objective.
“Moreover, rather than operating in the interest of public service, the work of a bail bondsman is fueled primarily by a strong profit motive.”
The panel also rejected Ham’s claim that Gregg consented to the search.
Noting that Gregg was disabled and alone in her bed when Ham and his group demanded entry, that Ham brandished a shotgun, and that he was accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy, the jury had ample evidence to conclude involuntary consent.
The court also rejected Ham’s claim that he did not pose bodily harm to Gregg, and that the claims on which Gregg received damages were based on the same conduct.
“Contrary to Ham’s contention, the Section 1983 and assault claims constituted separate violations,” Diaz wrote. “The Section 1983 claim alleged an unconstitutional entry into Gregg’s home, while the assault claim alleged that Ham placed Gregg in reasonable fear of bodily harm by, among other things, threatening her and pointing a shotgun in her direction. Because the claims related to separate conduct, the jury could reasonably conclude that Ham committed both violations by that Gregg’s actual damages stemmed only from the assault. Accordingly, the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying Ham’s motion for a new trial under this theory.”