By Michael L. Owens
Bristol Herald Courier
SULLIVAN COUNTY, Va. — The Sullivan County Sheriff's Office's lost its bid for immunity against being sued for burning down a mobile home during a botched standoff two years ago.
U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer, instead of writing off the blaze as the result of a good-faith mistake, has decided that a jury should decide whether police resorted to heavy-handed tactics when tossing inside a dozen teargas grenades for a fugitive who might not have been there.
"The Court cannot conclude that the officers are entitled to qualified immunity regarding the force used and the destruction of the plaintiffs' home," Greer wrote in an opinion filed in Greeneville, Tenn. "The reasonableness of their actions quite candidly must be decided by a jury based on the current state of this record."
At the same time, the judge tossed out a host of such claims as conspiracy to inflict emotional distress, violation of free speech, outrageous conduct and violation of due process rights.
With the overall immunity defense gone, Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street is now trying to whittle down the number of officers who can be sued by requesting immunity for only the low-ranking deputies who surrounded the home but didn't issue any orders that day, show court records filed Wednesday.
The ruling means that Margaret Spradlin can continue with her $1.5 million lawsuit against both the county and, for now, all the individual officers at the scene when her mobile home burned on April 27, 2011. A four-day jury trial is slated to begin Jan. 20, 2014.
She can also sue both the county and the individual officers for the eight hours she and adult daughter, Shirley Spradlin, spent in the back of patrol cars and at the Sheriff's Office, the judge ruled. Arriving officers ordered the two away from the home and transferred them between patrol cars that day.
"A reasonable jury could conclude that people held in the back of a police cruiser with a gun pointed at them and not allowed to leave after doing so were [unreasonably] seized," Greer wrote in his decision.
The standoff unfolded after local and federal police chased her son, Junior Spradlin, to the home in an attempt to arrest him on a second-degree murder charge filed in Abingdon , Va.
He is now serving a 40-year sentence in Virginia for the murder. Once the sentence is served, he will return to Tennessee and serve two years for the high-speed police chase through Blountville.
Police quickly surrounded the mobile home and throughout the day doused it with more than a dozen teargas grenades, including the outdoor-only, crowd-control grenade that sparked the fire in the living room. Spradlin was nowhere to be found once firefighters extinguished the blaze, however.
"The defendants admit that they knew that firing the stronger tear gas into the trailer might cause a fire," Greer wrote. "Considering these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a jury could find that the force used was unreasonable."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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