A judge has dismissed lawsuits against Itawamba County’s sheriff, a local justice court judge and a deputy by man who claimed his rights were violated during and after a 2017 arrest in which he refused to identify himself to local law enforcement agents.
Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson has dismissed claims made by Jonathan Lee Pierson that Itawamba County Justice Court Judge John Bishop, Sheriff Chris Dickinson and Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department deputy Larry Johnson violated his First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendment rights. Bishop and Dickinson were sued in their official capacities, Johnson as an individual.
The First Amendment protects the right to free speech; the Fourth Amendment gives the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” without probable cause; the Fourteenth Amendment protects the rights of U.S. citizens. Pierson sought $500,000 in damages, or “such other reasonable amount as the Court deems,” plus attorney fees and declamatory judgments that those named as defendants violated the law and his civil rights during his arrest.
Pierson is also suing Itawamba County. According to Davidson’s opinion, filed in the U.S. District Court on June 3, litigation for that claim shall proceed.
Pierson was arrested on Oct. 26, 2017, on a charge of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, after he refused to identify himself to local deputies, Johnson among them. He was later transported to Lee County on an outstanding warrant. Pierson was shooting a video at the time of his arrest. Portions of the footage were subsequently uploaded to YouTube following his arrest, which drew national attention from groups of civil rights activists.
According to Mississippi law, disorderly conduct constitutes a “failure to comply with requests or commands of law enforcement officers.”
In his claim against Bishop, Pierson said he was denied a request to record his trial. In the State of Mississippi, electronic recording during justice court proceedings is up to the discretion of the judge. Bishop made a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of judicial immunity, which states judicial officers are immune from civil liability for acts performed in the exercise of their judicial functions.
According to Davidson’s decision, Bishop, who filed a motion for judgment on Pierson’s’ pleadings, was acting within the scope of his judicial duties when he denied Pierson’s request to record the trial and therefore can’t be sued in civil court.
“Here, the actions of which the plaintiff [Pierson] complains were all judicial actions taken within the course and scope of Judge Bishop’s duties as Justice Court Judge in Itawamba County,” Davidson wrote.
Davidson goes on to state that the proper course of action for Pierson should be to appeal his conviction in a higher court. Pierson has, and that appeal remains pending.
Dickinson moved to dismiss the claim against him as a duplicate, since Pierson is also suing Itawamba County and the sheriff was acting in his official capacity at the time of Pierson’s arrest.
Davidson agreed, an in his decision said that Mississippi courts have “long made clear [that] sheriff’s departments ‘are not subject to suit because they do not enjoy a separate legal existence apart from their respective cities or counties.’”
Because Pierson is also suing Itawamba County, Davidson said the suit against the sheriff is redundant.
“When both a local official and the subject governmental entity are sued in their official capacities, the claims are duplicative and the official should be dismissed in his official capacity from the litigation,” Davidson wrote.
Finally, Davidson granted Deputy Johnson’s motion for relief on the basis that he is entitled to “qualified immunity” from civil liability because Pierson knowingly had an outstanding warrant at the time of his arrest.
“The plaintiff does not dispute that a valid warrant for his arrest was outstanding,” Davidson wrote. “Instead, the plaintiff argues that because he was videotaping his surroundings at the time of his arrest, and the First Amendment permits citizens to videotape police officers … he should have effectively been immune from arrest so long as he was videotaping, despite the existence of an outstanding warrant for his arrest. This is plainly incorrect.”
Davidson wrote that Pierson failed to prove Johnson’s conduct was “objectively unreasonable” at the time of his arrest and dismissed his claim.
Officials with the Itawamba County Sheriff’s Department claim Pierson and another man, Stephen Kilbourne, were filming and taking pictures in several places throughout downtown Fulton on the day of his arrest, including the county courthouse, Playgarden Park, post office and outside the jail. The department reportedly received several complaints regarding the duo, leading to the initial confrontation.
Although with Pierson at the time of his arrest, Kilbourne was not arrested.