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Florida sheriff asks panel to overturn order blocking eight-hour DUI hold policy

An attorney for the sheriff of Seminole County told the 11th Circuit that a Florida federal judge did not give the sheriff a chance to be heard before permanently banning the policy of holding DUI arrestees in county jail for eight hours even after they post bond.

ATLANTA (CN) — A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit appeared poised Wednesday to overturn a federal judge’s ruling declaring a central Florida county’s policy of holding DUI arrestees in county jail for eight hours unconstitutional.

An attorney for Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma told the Atlanta-based appeals court that a district court judge failed to make the proper legal findings to support the order permanently blocking the unwritten DUI hold policy and did not give his client "meaningful notice" to challenge the entry of an injunction.

In a ruling handed down last year, Senior U.S. District Judge G. Kendall Sharp found that the policy required “every DUI arrestee be detained for eight hours without exception even after objective breathalyzer evidence establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that the arrestee is not intoxicated and probable cause no longer exists to continue the detention.”

Arguing on behalf of the sheriff, attorney Thomas Poulton of DeBevoise & Poulton told the panel that the decision came out of left field. Poulton said the injunction came about even though the plaintiff in the case had not asked to block the now-defunct policy in her motion for summary judgment.

“Having a federal district court order a local official to stop enforcing a policy without an opportunity to be heard is fundamentally objectionable,” Poulton said.

In 2014, Seana Barnett was arrested by a Seminole County sheriff’s deputy on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. Two breathalyzer tests confirmed that Barnett was not drunk and, according to an earlier ruling in the case, there was no evidence that Barnett was under the influence of any other drug or substance.

Even after she posted bond, Barnett was still detained in the county jail for eight hours due to the policy. The DUI charge against her was dropped two months later.

Barnett sued the sheriff and the deputy in 2015, kicking off a protracted legal battle which has included two prior appeals to the 11th Circuit.

In 2020, a panel of the appeals court ruled that a jury trial should be held on whether Barnett was unconstitutionally detained in the county jail.

On Wednesday, U.S. Circuit Judge Barbara Lagoa, a Trump appointee, expressed concern that the 11th Circuit’s instructions had not been followed.

“There is a 2020 decision from this court which specifically said to reverse summary judgment and remand for trial,” Lagoa said. Instead, Lagoa explained, Sharp set a jury trial solely on the issue of damages for the time Barnett was detained, ruled in her favor on her claim against the sheriff and entered the injunction.

“My understanding is that what the motion for summary judgment in essence said [was] the district court had to determine liability and then there would be a trial on damages… [The ruling] didn’t say trial on damages. Maybe it’s missing, maybe it’s in invisible ink, I don’t know,” Lagoa said.

But an attorney for Barnett argued that her client gave notice that injunctive relief was a possibility from the very beginning of the litigation in her complaint, her amended complaint and in a pretrial stipulation.

“The complaint said we were seeking all relief possible,” said attorney Kendra Presswood of Shankman Leone.

Presswood told the panel that the sheriff had had a chance to be heard in a motion for reconsideration of Sharp’s ruling and added that there are “no issues of material fact whatsoever” remaining in the case.

“It’s remarkable that the sheriff is here arguing that,” Presswood said.

But Lagoa appeared firm in her belief that the sheriff had not had a proper opportunity to be heard.

“A party has to be on notice and you either have to have a complaint or motion and there has to be findings of fact and a determination made by the district court as to the four factors,” Lagoa said, referring to a four-factor legal analysis performed by judges to determine if an injunction should be issued.

“I don’t even see in what world we’re in where a district court judge enters a permanent injunction and does not even have an analysis on the factors,” the judge added.

U.S. Circuit Judge Charles Wilson, a Clinton appointee, seemed to agree, saying, “I can’t find any authority relating to the district court entering permanent injunctive relief sua sponte.”

Lagoa said Sharp’s ruling lacked the vital analysis, adding, “We’re reviewing and we have nothing to review and that’s problematic.”

Even if the injunction is overturned, the issues involved in the case will remain up in the air.

Poulton told the panel that if the injunction was overturned, the sheriff’s office would examine its new policy “and see if it meets muster.” Under questioning from Wilson, the attorney also added that the district court could then enter another permanent injunction if it saw fit.

But, Poulton said, there would still have to be a trial on the issue of whether Barnett was unconstitutionally held.

“Because if not, she doesn’t have standing to request the injunction in the first place,” Poulton said.

Wilson and Lagoa were joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Branch, a Trump appointee.

The judges did not indicate when they would issue a ruling in the case.

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