The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, on May 15, denied the majority of the immunity arguments from Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh and prosecutors regarding the events around “Operation Candy Crush,” which took place in February 2018.
Background on “Operation Candy Crush”
Law enforcement officials in Rutherford County executed “Operation Candy Crush” in February 2018. Officials raided certain stores within the county selling CBD products and arrested their store owners.
“The seventeen store owners alleged that law enforcement violated their constitutional
rights to be free from false arrest, unlawful seizure, and unlawful prosecution, as well as their right to equal protection. They also alleged a civil conspiracy to violate those rights,” Circuit Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote in her decision.
According to the Judge Gibbons’ decision, the plaintiffs revealed communications between law enforcement officials leading up to Operation Candy Crush in which officials expressed doubts about the CBD products’ purported illegality and concerns regarding the planned arrests and raids.
The defendants (Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh, District Attorney John Zimmerman and Assistant District Attorney Jennings S. Jones) moved to dismiss the claims, claiming absolute and qualified immunity. The district court denied their motions.
The court of appeals has:
- Denied absolute and qualified immunity for Jones and Zimmerman
- Affirmed the district court’s denial of quasi-judicial and qualified immunity for Fitzhugh on the Fourth Amendment claim
- Reversed the denial of qualified immunity for Fitzhugh on the plaintiff’s equal protection claim
Jones and Zimmerman
Absolute and qualified immunity was denied for Jones and Zimmerman because, as the judge states, Jones and Zimmerman “acted outside their role as judicial advocates during the investigative phase of ‘Operation Candy Crush’ and were objectively unreasonable in pushing the operation forward without probable cause.”
The judge’s decision also states that Zimmerman and Jones “erroneously advised the RCSO that the plaintiffs were selling illegal CBD products even though the prosecutors knew or should have known that they had no evidence of the products’ illegality.”
Fitzhugh is not entitled to quasi-judicial immunity “because he has not shown that absolute immunity extends to the execution of a tainted court order based on false information, as the complaint alleges. Fitzhugh, moreover, is not entitled to qualified immunity on the plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claims because the complaint alleges that he knew or should have known that probable cause did not exist to arrest the plaintiffs.”
The judge’s decision also states “the only justifications Fitzhugh offered for the arrests were allegedly fabrications. He claimed the plaintiffs would take candies out of their packaging, ‘spray them’ with an illegal substance, and repackage them for sale. He also claimed the products were derived from marijuana, even though the TBI never indicated—because it could not test— whether the products were derived from hemp or marijuana. Similar false statements were made in securing the indictments and nuisance orders. Although Fitzhugh made his false comments in a press conference after the plaintiffs were already arrested, they suggest he conducted himself in
the investigation with a reckless disregard for the truth—a truth of which he was likely aware, based on the complaint’s allegations about communications from his subordinates and the TBI. Thus, Fitzhugh is not entitled to qualified immunity for the alleged unlawful arrests, seizures, and malicious prosecution against the plaintiffs.”
However, Fitzhugh is immune on the equal protection claim “because the complaint does not allege facts showing that he participated in the decision to selectively target the plaintiffs’ stores.”
“Although the plaintiffs sufficiently allege that the investigation improperly targeted them based on malicious, financial intent….Fitzhugh was not present in the meetings where these comments were made,” the decision reads.