HED:Appeals court upholds award to Iuka bingo boss
By Philip Moulden
The state Court of Appeals has upheld a judgment favoring a former Iuka bingo hall supervisor who sued state Gaming Commission agents for malicious prosecution.
An appeals court majority concluded the agents displayed "malicious, vengeful behavior" that was "unchecked and out of control" when they arrested Lindon Baker, of Saltillo, on Sept. 5, 1995. Baker was in charge of Amvets Post 350's Iuka bingo operation at the time.
The justices also directed the state to pay a 15 percent penalty on top of the $45,000 awarded to Baker by a Tishomingo County Circuit Court judge following a 1997 trial. The state must also pay all court costs and legal fees.
Baker was arrested after refusing to participate in a videotaped interview with gaming commission agents Pat Strachan and Gary Crocker. He was charged with falsifying bingo records and conspiring to break state bingo laws and spent 15 hours in jail before being released.
The state later declined to prosecute the case.
In its 8-2 ruling, the appeals court held that Strachan and Crocker initiated Baker's arrest simply because he refused to cooperate in an interview.
"One of the agents testified that the decision to swear out the affidavits that led to Baker's almost instant incarceration was only made after Baker refused to voluntarily continue answering their inquiries a right that Baker certainly enjoyed under the constitution and one, therefore, for which he ought not to have suffered State-sponsored retribution," Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. wrote for the majority.
Diaz added, "It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these agents were, at the very least, proceeding with an unseemly measure of zeal ... of retaliating against Baker for his decision to cease cooperating. ..."
The arrest came during a Gaming Commission probe of alleged illegal activities at the Amvets operation, which has since been closed.
Baker was not a member of Amvets and was not listed as a bingo supervisor for the club. In fact, at the time he was registered with the Gaming Commission as a bingo supervisor for Vietnow in Tupelo, a dual role banned by law.
But Baker contended he was merely filling in at Iuka for his ill brother-in-law, W.C. Reynolds of Corinth, the registered supervisor for Amvets 350.
The Gaming Commission also charged that Baker filed a falsified power of attorney executed by Reynolds giving Baker the right to disburse bingo funds in Reynolds' name.
Agents testified the blank power of attorney had been turned over to them by a third party days after it was supposedly signed by Reynolds. The document was secretly marked for identification and later arrived at the Gaming Commission's office with Reynolds' signature and a notary's seal attesting to the false date.
But the appeals court held that the circumstances involved did not show that the trial judge erred in ruling the agents lacked probable cause to arrest Baker at the point they did.
"It is not readily apparent what urgency necessitated Baker's immediate incarceration, late in the evening, for a series of nonviolent offenses, all of which occurred days prior to the arrest," the court said.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Roger McMillin said the existence of malice on the part of agents did not rule out probable cause, and probable cause was all that was needed to throw out the judgment.
"It is undisputed that Baker was not a member of Amvet 350 and was, thus, not authorized to operate the bingo game," McMillin pointed out, adding "it is understandable that these investigators reasonably believed that one of the primary reasons, if not the only reason, that Baker persisted in signing Reynolds' name to the checks rather than his own was to conceal the fact of Baker's unauthorized activities at Amvet 350."
Attorneys for the Gaming Commission had no immediate response to the ruling, which could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.