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Federal and State Officers Face Liability for Framing Drug Defendants

The Sixth Circuit Court of appeals reversed an Ohio federal district court’s order that disposed of claims related to federal and state law enforcement officers framing two men on drug charges in Operation Turnaround.

Before the court was the appeals of Joshawa Webb and Herman Price after the district court awarded summary judgment and dismissal of civil rights claims against federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officers, Richland county Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) officers, and The United States, which became a defendant when it substituted itself for its agents as defendants.

“Webb and Price were separately arrested and charged as part of ‘Operation Turnaround’, a corrupted investigation into the Mansfield, Ohio, drug trade,” The Sixth circuit said in beginning its lengthy backround into the case.  The RCSO began its investigation after finding the body of Timothy Harris on 31, 2004; his death was believed to be drug related.

To assist in its investigation, the RCSO recruited Jerrel Bray to become a confidential informant to make drug buys of illegal drugs from suspected drug traffickers.  At RCSO’s request, DEA agents Lee Lucas and Robert Cross joined the investigation and registered Bray as a DEA informant.

Based on Bray’s controlled buys, over two dozen people were arrested and charged with federal drug crimes.  Webb and Price were among them.  “Following the completion of Operation Turnaround, Bray, while he was in jail for killing a man in an unrelated Cleveland drug deal, disclosed that Lucas conspired with him to frame innocent individuals including Webb and Price,” wrote the Sixth Circuit.

An investigation by the Office of Inspector General and Department of Justice confirmed Bray had used stand-ins to participate in drug deals and then identify the stand-ins as an Operation Turnaround target.  Charges against all Operation Turnaround targets were dismissed, and Bray, Lucas, and RCSO officer Chuck Metcalf were prosecuted.  Metcalf subsequently pleaded guilty to violating a target’s civil rights by testifying falsely at his trial.  Lucas, however, was found not guilty by a jury of making false statements, violation of civil rights, obstruction of justice, and perjury.

The district court held Price, inter alia, lacked standing to bring because “he should have been in custody in the state of Michigan for the entire time he was arrested and  held in this matter” due to a 7 year plea agreement on drug and weapons charges.  The Sixth circuit reversed, holding Price “did not forfeit his Fourth Amendment right to be free from imprisonment for unrelated crimes he did not commit.”

The district court’s reasoning was flawed because under its rationale every state and federal prisoner could be deemed to have forfeited all of their “Fourth Amendment rights regarding false imprisonment and malicious prosecution, and the government would have free rein to frame them for any other crime.”  The Sixth Circuit held “it is objectively unreasonable to frame an inmate,” so it reversed and found Price had standing to bring suit.

It further reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to: Lucas and Metcalf on Webb’s malicious persecution claim; Lucas, Metcalf, and RCSO officer Larry Faith on Price’s malicious persecution claim; Lucas on Webb’s false arrest claim; Lucas, Metcalf, and DEA agent Robert Cross on Webb’s fabrication of evidence claim; Lucas Metcalf, and Faith on Price’s federal conspiracy claims; and on all state law and Federal Tort Claim Act claims.  All other dismissals and summary judgment grants were affirmed.  See: Webb et al v. United States, No 14-3443/3444(6th Cir. 2015).

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Related legal case

Webb et al v. United States