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$1.3 Million Paid to Transgender Woman Held Five Months in Atlanta Jail on Bogus Charges

by Chuck Sharman

On January 3, 2023, the Atlanta City Council unanimously adopted Ordinance 22-O-1891, clearing the way for the city to pay $1.3 million to settle claims by a Black transgender woman that she was locked up in the city jail for five months on trumped-up charges. The settlement amount is much less than the sum of a $1.5 million jury award made in February 2022 and a $608,715 attorney’s fee award made the following July.

“Everyone agrees that, on the evening of October 10, 2015, [Ju’Zema] Goldring was walking in Midtown, Atlanta,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit later recalled. That’s when Atlanta Police Department (APD) Officers Vladimir Henry and Juan Restrepo arrested her for misdemeanor jaywalking. At an APD station, they field-tested powdery residue on a stress ball found in Goldring’s purse, after which the cops obtained a felony warrant for cocaine possession. Beyond those undisputed facts, the Court continued, the parties involved had “sharply conflicting accounts of what happened that night.”

Goldring insisted she was not jaywalking but in fact “was on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk at all times,” the Court noted, when the officers conducted an “invasive public search” of her genital area while wearing a dress. Moreover, she claimed she later overheard other cops in the station tell Restrepo the substance from her stress ball was “nothing,” but he kept repeating tests on it anyway, growing more perturbed with each negative result. Despite his claim to the contrary, the substance later proved – surprise! – to be nothing more than sand.

Meanwhile, Goldring’s bail was set at $25,500, which she couldn’t afford. She was charged on October 23, 2015, and 25 days later the state Bureau of Investigation determined the substance wasn’t cocaine. Nevertheless, the charges were not dropped until March 21, 2016.

Goldring then sued under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming malicious prosecution in violation of her Fourth Amendment guarantee of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. She also made state-law claims. The officers claimed both qualified immunity and official immunity from the state law claims, arguing there was no showing of actual malice on their part.

Not so fast, Goldring countered; there was no probable cause for her arrest, and a jury could reasonably find malicious prosecution in the officers’ stubbornly seeking a warrant anyway. That also showed actual malice, she claimed.

Calling it a case “crying out for a trial,” the federal court for the Northern District of Georgia denied Defendants’ motion for summary judgment on September 4, 2019. Maybe Henry and Restrepo “made a mistake,” the district court allowed, but the evidence was sufficient “to suggest that it might not have been a mistake.”

Defendants appealed that decision to the Eleventh Circuit, which ruled against them on November 12, 2021. See: Goldring v. Henry, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 33621 (11th Cir.). The case returned to the district court, where Goldring dropped her state-law claim, and a jury awarded her $1.5 million on February 15, 2022, on her civil rights claim of malicious prosecution for the cocaine-possession charge. The jury found for Defendants on the companion malicious prosecution charge for jaywalking.

Both parties moved for attorney’s fees, but the Court denied Defendant’s request on July 22, 2022, making an award instead to Goldring and her attorneys, Zack Greenamyre of Mitchell and Shapiro, LLP and Jeffrey Filipovits of Filipovits Law, PC. See: Goldring v. Henry, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133775 (N.D. Ga.).

It is the 39th-largest city in the U.S., with a population over 490,000, but Atlanta has a $2,000 limit on payouts where the city is not a named defendant, but is merely indemnifying employees. So, there could be no payout to Goldring without an ordinance waiving that cap. Once that passed the city council, Defendants dropped their appeal of the fee award at the Eleventh Circuit on February 8, 2023, the same day Goldring voluntarily dismissed her suit in the district court. See: Goldring v. Henry, USCA (11th Cir.), Case No. 22-10643; USDC (N.D. Ga.), Case No. 1:18-cv-01191.

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