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Virginia Circuit Court Awards $197.55 to Prisoner in Property Tort Claim

by Douglas Ankney

On June 28, 2019, the Grayson County Circuit Court awarded $197.55 to state prisoner Gary Brown following a bench trial in which he proceeded pro se on a tort claim against the Commonwealth of Virginia (Commonwealth).

Brown’s complaint alleged that on July 22, 2016, he was speaking with a nurse in the presence of Unit Manager Dowell and Lt. Higgins. Higgins “butted into” Brown’s conversation, and Brown told him to “mind his own business.”

Higgins then approached Brown in an aggressive and disrespectful way and poked his finger in Brown’s face. Brown knocked Higgins’ finger away, told him to back up and said if he ever stuck his finger in his (Brown’s) face again, he would “lay him out.” Higgins had Brown taken to segregation and charged him with “threatening bodily harm.”

Higgins then reportedly told Brown’s cellmate to “pack up Brown’s property and keep what you want.” The cellmate took several items of food and clothing, and packed up the remainder. Higgins took Brown’s property to another housing unit and distributed it to other prisoners, including personal photographs.

Brown filed a notice of claim seeking $317.52 in damages against the Commonwealth on January 6, 2017, pursuant to the Virginia Tort Claims Act (VTCA), Va. Code § 8.01-195.1, et seq. Under the VTCA, the Commonwealth abrogates its sovereign immunity and allows suits for the negligent acts of state employees. The notice of claim informs the Attorney General of the nature of the claim and that a motion for judgment will be filed if the claim is not settled within six months.

On September 27, 2017, Brown filed a motion for judgment in the circuit court. The Commonwealth, via the Attorney General’s office, admitted liability but disputed the amount of damages as to the value of Brown’s personal photographs. A bench trial was set for June 28, 2019 to determine damages.

Brown filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus ad testificandum on June 5, 2019, requesting that he be transported for trial. The court clerk responded by letter, claiming the court did not have authority to arrange prisoner transports in civil cases. Brown moved for an order denying his petition so he could appeal that refusal, because the trial court did in fact have authority to issue transportation orders in civil cases, citing Mabe v. Wythe County Dept. of Soc. Servs., 53 Va.App. 325 (Va. App. Ct. 2009). On June 21, 2019, the clerk responded that a transport order had been issued for his court appearance.

At the ensuing bench trial, the circuit court sided with the Commonwealth as to a lesser value for the photos. Accordingly, Brown was awarded $197.55 in damages. See: Brown v. Commonwealth, Grayson County Circuit Court (VA), Case No. CL18-27. 

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Related legal case

Brown v. Commonwealth