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Sanders v. Jones

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit

January 9, 2017

Amy Sanders, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Lamar Jones, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued: October 18, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee at Jackson. No. l:14-cv-01239-J. Daniel Breen, District Judge.


          Amanda S. Jordan, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Leanne Thorne, THORNE & THORNE, Lexington, Tennessee, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Amanda S. Jordan, Michael C. Polovich, OFFICE OF THE TENNESSEE ATTORNEY GENERAL, Nashville, Tennessee, for Appellant.

          Leanne Thorne, THORNE & THORNE, Lexington, Tennessee, for Appellee.

          Before: SUHRHEINRICH, ROGERS, and GRIFFIN, Circuit Judges.


          SUHRHEINRICH, Circuit Judge.


         Defendant Lamar Jones ("Jones"), a police officer with the Decatur County Sheriff's Department, conducted a controlled buy of marijuana on May 22, 2013, through a confidential informant ("CI") as part of a county-wide drug-bust operation. Plaintiff Amy Sanders ("Sanders") alleges that Jones prepared a misleading police report and gave false grand jury testimony identifying Sanders as the person who sold the CI drugs. Based on these allegations, Sanders brought a § 1983 action against Jones for malicious prosecution in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Jones moved for summary judgment on the basis of absolute and qualified immunity, and the district court denied both defenses. Jones appeals that decision.

         Jones's absolute immunity defense presents a question of first impression about how the Supreme Court's provision of absolute immunity for grand jury witnesses in Rehberg v. Paulk, 132 S.Ct. 1497 (2012), intersects with the Sixth Circuit's requirements for malicious prosecution claims where a grand jury indicted the plaintiff. The issue compels us to revisit the test applied in Webb v. United States, 789 F.3d 647 (6th Cir. 2015) and other Sixth Circuit cases requiring an indicted plaintiff to present evidence that the defendant provided false testimony to the grand jury. In light of Rehberg's absolute immunity for false grand jury testimony, Rehberg precludes Sanders's malicious prosecution claim because she cannot rebut the indictment's presumption of probable cause without using Jones's grand jury testimony.


         A. Facts

         Jones is a police officer with the Decatur County Sheriff's Department. Jones began working as a member of the 24th Judicial District Drug Task Force ("DTF") in October 2012, with his operation located in Decatur County, Tennessee. DTF used confidential informants to identify individuals willing to sell drugs and to purchase drugs from these individuals under video surveillance. In May 2013, DTF used a CI who identified Sanders as a drug seller. Jones became acquainted with this CI through Joel Pate ("Pate"), another DTF officer who had conducted an operation in Carroll County. Pate informed Jones that several other agencies recommended the CI as a good and credible source, and that the CI facilitated several convictions in Pate's DTF operation in Carroll County. The CI was from Memphis and did not have ties to Decatur County prior to moving to the area for the spring 2013 operation. DTF paid the CI in cash for each controlled buy. The CI had a criminal drug history, but was not currently under investigation for drug trafficking or manufacturing.

         The CI's modus operandi was to make contact with suspected drug sellers, offer to purchase drugs from them, and ask to meet later to make the purchase. Through this procedure, the CI became acquainted with a woman he referred to as "Amy." The CI obtained this woman's cell phone number and, monitored by Jones, used the phone number to call her and arrange a controlled buy on May 22, 2013. The woman did not identify herself during the phone call. Jones did not attempt to run a search on the owner of the cell phone number. The phone number actually belonged to Amanda Ramey ("Ramey"), another target of the spring 2013 operation with whom Jones was familiar. Ramey was Sanders's roommate at the time of the relevant events.[1]

         The CI, wired with a video camera, met the female suspect at the Decaturville City Park. Jones followed the CI from a distance. He observed a silver Monte Carlo pull into the park but did not see the person driving it or obtain the vehicle's license tag number. During the controlled buy, the suspect did not identify herself or provide any other information about herself. Jones knew, however, that Ramey drove a silver Monte Carlo and that Sanders drove a Ford Explorer. Jones also knew that Ramey and Sanders lived together, although he was not aware that they were sisters.

         After the controlled buy, the CI gave Jones a description of the female suspect as short and petite with long black hair and tattoos. Jones asked around the Decatur County Sheriff's Department if anyone knew a person matching that description. Deputy Ricky Inman ("Inman") told Jones that the description resembled Amy Sanders, with whom Inman was familiar. Jones retrieved Sanders's driver's license photograph and showed the CI the photo a couple of days after the controlled buy. The CI then identified Sanders as the person from whom he purchased marijuana. The CI reiterated his identification to Jones a few days before Jones appeared before the grand jury in September.

         Having obtained the CI's identification and viewing the video of the controlled buy, Jones drew up a police report of the controlled buy and forwarded it to the district attorney's office. The narrative portion of the report related the following information:

On 5/22/2013 at approximately 1512 hrs. Ci made contact by cell phone, (713-602-2593) with a white female by the name of Amy Sanders Patterson in an attempt to purchase 1 Oz. of marijuana. Amy agreed to sell the 1 oz. of marijuana to the Ci and meet him at the Coty Park in Decaturville across from Decaturville Elementary. At approximately 1528 hrs Ci meet [sic] with Amy who was driving a silver Monte Carlo and purchased the marijuana for 130.00. I then meet with the Ci. And took the marijuana into evidence.

         The police report did not describe how the CI came to identify the female suspect as Amy Sanders. It also did not indicate that there was video-poor quality or otherwise-of the transaction. The parties agree that this police report, in tandem with the CI's identification, formed the basis for Sanders's indictment.

         Jones did not discuss the report on Sanders with anyone from the district attorney's office until the morning of the grand jury, when he met with Assistant District Attorney Jim Williams ("Williams"). It is unclear whether Williams knew about or viewed the video of the controlled buy prior to convening the grand jury. Although a transcript of the grand jury proceedings are not in the record, Jones related the substance of his grand jury testimony during his deposition. Jones testified that his grand jury testimony consisted largely of his reading verbatim from his police report. Jones also testified that he described to the grand jury how the CI identified the suspect from her driver's license photo. Furthermore, he testified that Williams asked during the grand jury whether there was audio and video of the controlled drug purchase, and that Jones answered "yes." Jones conceded that he did not tell the grand jury that the quality of the video recording was poor. According to Jones, the video quality was poor and "didn't show the faces clear enough" to make an identification.

         However, during Jones's deposition, Jones viewed a screenshot[2] taken from the video of the controlled buy, and the following line of questioning took place:

Q: As you sit here today, do you agree with me that, whether it be before or after this litigation began, the individual pictured in that video is not Amy Sanders?
A: I agree with you.
Q: And that video was within your control from the time it was made, from May 22nd, all the way up through the date of ...

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