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Civil Suit Against Wise County, Virginia for Case of Mistaken Identity

In a case of mistaken identity, an innocent man residing in Memphis, Tennessee was extradited to a regional jail in Wise County, Virginia where he remained incarcerated for more than three months. Once the Commonwealth’s Attorney could be convinced of the mistaken identity, the three indictments were dismissed against the plaintiff.

In 2005, a member of the drug task force in Big Stone Gap, Virginia agreed to three controlled drug buys through a confidential informant (C.I.) between November 29, 2005 and December 16, 2005. The C.I. identified the defendant by name and description – an old man who drove a jeep with a stolen Tennessee license plate.

The defendant relayed this information to the drug task force office, which, in turn, provided a social security number of the alleged suspected drug dealer, and a Big Stone Gap, Virginia post office address.

On May 31, 2006, armed with the information provided by the Defendant a Grand Jury returned three separate indictments relating to the three drug transactions with the C.I. Consequently, the Circuit Court of Wise County, Virginia issued three separate bench warrants.

Nearly six months later. The Plaintiff, who was living in Memphis, Tennessee became aware of the outstanding arrest warrants in Wise County, Virginia and contacted the Wise County Sheriff’s Department who advised Plaintiff to surrender to authorities in Tennessee and “they would straighten it out.” In December 2006, Plaintiff surrendered to authorities in Tennessee, waived extradition, and was transported to a Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Duffield, Virginia where he remained illegally detained for an additional three months before the Commonwealth’s Attorney could be persuaded - through cell phone records - that the wrong person has been indicted and arrested.

Two years thereafter Plaintiff initiated a Federal Civil Action under Title 42 USC §1983 against the Commonwealth’s Attorney, the Sheriff of Wise County, and the task force member that “told [the task force] to go ahead and indict [Plaintiff].” The District Court granted Summary Judgment in favor of Defendant’s on the basis of qualified immunity rejecting Plaintiffs attempt to show factual disputes concerning the investigation and the resulting prosecution.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Courts grant of Summary Judgment finding that Plaintiff failed to meet the “two-step” inquiry, asking “first whether a constitutional violation occurred and second whether the right violated was clearly established.

The Fourth Circuit found that Plaintiff was unable to establish a constitutional violation because, although the underlying criminal proceedings were terminated in his favor, the prosecution was plainly supported by probable cause, as conclusively established by the three grand jury indictments. Furthermore, the Circuit Court found that the evidence for a reasonable law enforcement officer to believe that Plaintiff was involved in the three drug transactions - namely, the C.I. had on three occasions identified the drug dealer as Plaintiff; Plaintiff had a Big Stone Gap, Virginia address; the Plaintiff had a vehicle with Tennessee license plates; Plaintiff had a Tennessee driver’s license; and Plaintiffs criminal history included two previous drug-related convictions.

Finally, the Circuit Court found that Plaintiff was unable to establish his seizure was “pursuant to a legal process that was not supported by probable cause.” Therefore, the Circuit Court concluded since Plaintiff failed to establish the essential constitutional violation underlying a section 1983 claim the court need not determine whether any rights asserted were “clearly established,” and thus, affirmed the judgment of the district court. See: Durham v. Horner, 690 F.3d 183 (4th Cir. Va. 2012).

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Related legal case

Durham v. Horner