NEW ORLEANS (CN) – The 5th Circuit granted a Mississippi judge qualified immunity from a complaint that said he lied to a local district attorney’s office to get a man arrested for trying to bribe him.
A District Court in Jackson, Miss., had denied Judge Houston Patton’s motion for immunity, finding that there was enough evidence to suggest that he twisted some facts to cause the arrest of James Jennings, a man who had appeared before him in an earlier case.
However, a three-judge panel in New Orleans found there were no clear violations of Jenning’s constitutional rights and reversed the lower court’s finding.
In the early 1990s, Patton presided over a series of disputes between Jennings and his ex-wife in the Hinds County Court. At the conclusion of that preceding, Jennings’ former spouse was awarded a default judgment of $35,000.
In his complaint, Jennings said Patton later illegally made him surrender the judgment in exchange for his release from jail, where he was being held for contempt.
Jennings then filed a complaint against Patton with the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance and hired an attorney, J. Keith Shelton, to bring a civil rights claim on the same charges.
While the lawyer was trying to negotiate Jennings’ as-yet-unfiled suit with Patton in March 1997, the parties reached an agreement: “Jennings would release Judge Patton from any civil claims and inform the judicial commission that his claims had been satisfied, in exchange for Judge Patton’s $25,000 payment and reinstatement of the $35,000 award,” according to the circuit’s summary of the case.
“Unbeknownst to Jennings and Shelton, however, Judge Patton had contacted the district attorney’s office to report Shelton’s offer, which he considered to be a bribery attempt by the two men,” the summary continues.
The district attorney’s office arrested both Jennings and Shelton within moments of their signing a proposed settlement agreement with the Patton. A Mississippi grand jury returned indictments against the two men, but they were never tried, and the case was remanded with prejudice.
Jennings says he would not have been criminally prosecuted if Patton had not misrepresented the settlement discussions, a violation his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights to be free from prosecution without probable cause. Specifically, Jennings said, Patton failed to tell the district attorney that the reinstatement of the $35,000 judgment had been his idea.
A federal judge denied Patton’s motion for immunity, finding that Jennings’ evidence called Patton’s version of the events into question.
In deciding whether to reverse that ruling, the 5th Circuit said it considered, “(1) whether the facts that the plaintiff has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether the right at issue was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the defendant’s alleged misconduct.”
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Carl Stewart held that “‘causing charges to be filed without probable cause will not without more violate the Constitution.'”
“Indeed, even taking the facts in the light most favorable to Jennings, we do not see how, based on our precedents, Jennings has alleged cognizable constitutional violation,” Stewart wrote.