The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled that a trio of Wood County, TX, officials must answer charges they conspired to retaliate against a police captain because he exercised his First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
The three-judge panel ruled 2-1 to deny qualified immunity to the defendants, local Judge Jeff Fletcher, Sheriff Tom Castloo and former District Attorney James Wheeler.
Quitman Police Department Captain Terry Bevill has charged the trio with conspiring to have him fired and arrested for agreeing to a lawyer’s request to sign an affidavit for a friend
Bevill signed the affidavit in his personal capacity to support a venue transfer for the criminal trial of former Wood County Jail Administrator David McGee. Bevill said McGee would not get a fair trial in the county for facilitating the escape of an inmate and tampering with government documents because of the close personal relationship between Castloo, Wheeler and Fletcher.
The affidavit described Belvill “[a]s a longtime resident and law enforcement officer” who was “familiar with the local players and political climate.”
Castloo, Wheeler and Fletcher subsequently demanded Quitman Mayor David Dobbs fire Bevill, allegedly threatening to refuse to take future cases and to deny support for the police department. After pressure from Dobbs, Police Chief Kelly Cole fired Belvill on the grounds he violated a policy that bars police from interfering with courts.
Meanwhile, McGee’s case was not transferred and a jury found him guilty.
It Wasn’t Enough?
Apparently not satisfied, Fletcher proceeded to issue a warrant for Bevill’s arrest on a charge of perjury.
Bevill had to submit to onerous terms to stay out of jail, including surrendering his firearm and periodic drug testing. Then Fletcher allegedly put the brakes on Bevill’s case, refusing to bring it to a grand jury to prolong Bevill’s suffering. The charge against Bevill ultimately was dismissed.
The appeals court panel ruled that Bevill spoke as a private citizen on matter of public concern. As such, the panel said, Bevill had right to be “free from government officials’ exerting their power or influence” in retaliation for his exercise of his free speech rights. The panel said the defendants’ actions were “objectively unreasonable.”
The panel referred to a 2017 article in a local newspaper in which Fletcher, who had recently been elected as a state judge, “emphasized the important of [he, Castloo, and Wheeler] staying in line and working in unison for the same goals.” The panel said this article and the defendants’ joint meeting with Mayor Dobbs, imploring him to terminate Bevill,”raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of an illegal agreement.”
The majority decision was written by Judge Carl E. Stewart and joined by Judge Eugene Davis.
In a brief dissent, Judge Andrew S. Oldman said the majority strained to reach its conclusion. “[T]he law is not clearly established when it takes a full-page flow chart” to outline the alleged conspiracy, wrote Judge Oldman.
The Fifth Circuit is based in New Orleans, LA, and covers most of Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
The case is Bevill v. Fletcher, No. 20-40250 (2/11/2022).