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Saturday, July 20, 2024 | Back issues
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Prison Library Aide Can Press Drug Frame Claim

(CN) - A federal judge in Florida will allow a former prison library aide to pursue some, but not all, of his claims he was framed by deputies who planted cocaine and marijuana in his car after he reported the misdeeds of others.

Michael Russ was still a relatively new hire of The GEO Group, operator of the Graceville Correctional Facility in Jackson County, Florida, when he began to notice misconduct by some of his fellow employees.

Of these, Russ said one of the main offenders was a female law library aide who engaged in inappropriate relationships with inmates and provided them with drugs. He also alleged the library aide orchestrated a fight between inmates when one of them began talking a little too freely about her activities.

Russ said he documented these activities and presented his notes to Captain Tim Taylor, a security officer at the prison, who promptly ignored them. Undeterred, Russ persevered and eventually turned up hard evidence of these activities that led to law library aide's resignation.

Russ also alleged he was told by an instructor of academic courses at the facility that GEO falsified the number of students in the courses to show compliance with GEO's contractual obligations. Based on this information, Russ said he told an assistant Warden that he refused to consult with inmates in the program as he did not was to "be involved with any fraudulent activity."

He also claimed to have overheard the prison's chief of security threaten an inmate with disciplinary action if the inmate did not drop a lawsuit pending against GEO.

In August 2009, eight months after he was hired, Russ was stopped as he was driving out of the facility and subjected to a search of his vehicle. During the search, Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Pelfrey claimed to have found baggies containing cocaine and marijuana.

Russ denied the bags were his, but he was arrested for possession of contraband on the grounds of a prison facility. After being acquitted of those charges in March 2010, Russ sued the GEO Group, Washington County Sheriff Bobby Haddock and Jackson County Sheriff Louis Roberts, both of whom supervised deputies involved in his arrest, as well as the deputies themselves, Jeremy Pelfrey and Benjamin Burch.

Specifically, Russ alleged that "GEO solicited the help and assistance of [Deputy Pelfrey] to have Plaintiff arrested knowing that the allegations against him were not true" and that Sheriff Haddock was "deliberately indifferent to training [Deputy Pelfrey] in the fact that probable cause is not contrived to effect an arrest of someone like Plaintiff."

Among other things, Russ said Pelfrey refused to review or preserve security camera footage of the facility's parking lot the morning of the search, rejecting the library aide's claim he accidentally left his car unlocked that day.

He also claimed that in doing so, the deputy said, "I don't need to because I know you're guilty because that's how we roll in Washington County."

He also claimed Captain Taylor, who was not named as a defendant in the case, told him "snitches always end up in ditches" and that he overheard Deputy Pelfrey telling Captain Taylor what to say about the incident. Jackson County deputies then arrived on the scene and took over the investigation, Russ said.

All of the defendants save for Benjamin Burch moved for summary judgment.

In considering these motions, U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak noted that the prison had at least two signs in the parking lot advising employees they were subject to search for contraband and that Russ acknowledged he was subject to search at any time.

Smoak said that while Russ did not see anybody plant the drugs in his car, a jury question nevertheless exists as to whether Deputy Pelfrey fabricated the evidence upon which the library aide's arrest was based.

On the other hand, he said, certain statements attributed to the deputy at the time of the search suggest he believed Russ was withholding information, statements that are "inconsistent with the notion that Deputy Pelfrey planted the drugs or knew that somebody else had."

Smoak also suggested that Deputy Pelfrey, having not been directly harmed by Russ' reports, lacked motive to harm him.

"However, there are material facts in dispute deserving the attention of a jury," the judge wrote, denying Pelfrey's motion for summary judgment.

When it came to GEO Group, Smoak said Russ failed to establish his employer took actions that deprived him of a Constitutional right - the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure -- or that the actions were taken by a person under color of law.

"No GEO employee arrested Plaintiff, nor did any GEO employee have the authority to do so. Plaintiff was not seized by GEO ... Thus, GEO is entitled to summary judgment," the judge wrote.

Smoak also granted Sheriff Haddock's request for summary judgment, holding that "Even if Sheriff Haddock had imperfect training in place regarding the constitutional limitations on search and seizure, Plaintiff has offered no evidence that Sheriff Haddock's alleged deficiencies were born of 'deliberate indifference' to Plaintiff's constitutional right to be free from unreasonable seizure."

Smoak also tossed the library aide's claim that Haddock failed to properly train Deputy Pelfrey in regard to his jurisdictional limitations, in this case wrongly allowing him to arrest Russ in Jackson County, while being employed as a deputy in Washington County.

The judge said as the counties operated under a Mutual Aid Agreement, such cross-jurisdictional activities were part of a custom the two municipalities shared.As to the issue of probable cause as it related to Russ' arrest, Smoak said a jury must resolve that issue in regard to Deputy Pelfrey, as well as to whether Captain Taylor knew the drugs had been planted in the car in the first place. As a result, in regard to the latter, GEO is not entitled to summary judgment on that claim.

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