Federal judge dismisses former Madison County deputy’s lawsuit over arrest

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. —  A federal judge has dismissed a wrongful arrest and prosecution lawsuit filed by a former Madison County Sheriff’s Deputy that named Sheriff Blake Dorning, numerous sheriff’s office employees, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard and two officials in his office.

The order dismissing the lawsuit by former deputy Steve Parton was issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith.

The charge against Parton and his subsequent lawsuit came in the wake of a dark and strange chapter for the Madison County Sheriff’s Office.

Parton was fired from the sheriff’s office in December 2013 and arrested in February 2014 on a second-degree theft charge. He was charged with removing a gun from the scene of where Jason Klonowski was killed in November 2013.

Klonowski’s murder remains unsolved.

Klonowski was a vocal advocate of Robert Bryant, a handyman, who was beaten and arrested in August 2012. Bryant’s beating came a few weeks after a bar fight he had with then-Deputy Justin Watson.

Bryant, who suffered numerous injuries from the beating, was charged with resisting arrest. Klonowski helped pay for his legal defense and held a rally shortly before his death, criticizing Dorning and the sheriff’s office for brutality.

The charges against Bryant were eventually dropped and Madison County settled a lawsuit he’d filed against Dorning and several deputies for $625,000.

Watson pleaded guilty in January to a federal charge of obstruction of justice, stemming from his behavior in the wake of the Bryant beating. He is still awaiting sentencing.

Parton’s lawsuit alleges that his firing and arrest were aimed at covering up the beating of Bryant and Klonowski’s death. He also complained about how the sheriff’s office handled his conduct compared to Watson’s.

“While an officer who has recently admitted to beating a citizen and testifying falsely under oath … got two weeks without pay and no Madison County prosecution, another (Parton), who at most failed to tell his supervisor about a gun in the aftermath of the death of a friend, lost his job and got charged with theft,” the lawsuit claimed.

But Judge Smith found that argument unpersuasive.

The judge focused on Parton’s conduct at the scene of Klonowski’s death.

“Defendants observe that the ‘firearm was located in a truck bed just a few feet away from the body’ of Jason Klonowski, and that it accordingly was ‘important evidence for the officers investigating the death of Klonowski to evaluate and consider in the course of their investigation,’” Smith wrote.

“In spite of that obvious fact, plaintiff failed to apprise any of the investigating officers that a firearm had been discovered, and intentionally transferred the firearm into the vehicles of two unauthorized subjects.

“A reasonable police officer could have believed that plaintiff, who undoubtedly knew that an investigation into an unattended death would be instituted, concealed and/or removed the firearm from the scene in order to impair its availability for inspection.”

Klonowski had been shot in the head, but it wasn’t until a coroner discovered a bullet hole in the back of his head, a day after his body was found, that a homicide investigation was started.

Parton, who had lived near Klonowski for several years, said he heard the dispatcher describe a death at the familiar address, according to court records. When he arrived he found his former common-law wife, Klonowski’s neighbor, very upset.  A fire crew was also there.

Smith found that Parton’s subsequent conduct created a reasonable basis for his later theft arrest, though Parton insisted he did nothing wrong.

While Parton was attending the distraught neighbor, a fire crew pointed out a .357 magnum pistol on a bumper near Klonowski’s body – which was on a chair.

Parton said he took the gun and secured it by placing it in the woman’s car. He later called a dispatcher to determine the gun’s owner and it turned out to be Klonowski’s stepmother and business partner.

She arrived at the scene a short time later and Parton said he moved the gun into her car, placing it under her seat.

But, investigators faulted him for moving the gun and not logging it into evidence. The gun’s owner, Donna Monroe, said she didn’t know the gun was in her car. She later asked prosecutors to drop the charge against Parton, noting that other deputies placed guns in her car the day Klonowski’s body was discovered, but the case continued.

Parton also argued that the gun he was charged with stealing was not the gun used to kill Klonowski.

At a preliminary hearing in the case in April 2014, Madison County District Court Judge Linda Coats dismissed the charge after finding there was insufficient evidence to bring the case to a grand jury.

In Wednesday’s ruling Judge Smith also addressed the argument made by Parton’s attorney, Hank Sherrod of Florence, on why prosecutors were not immune if they gave investigators “legal advice” during an investigation. Sherrod cited the 1991 U.S. Supreme Court in Burns vs. Reed.

The Burns case is pretty unusual.

An Indiana woman, Kathy Burns, alleged someone had come into her home, knocked her out and shot her two sons. Police investigators began to suspect Burns had “multiple personality disorder” and wanted to interview her under hypnosis because she might have committed the crime under an alternate identity.

They checked with a state prosecutor to see if they could question a hypnotized suspect. He said they “probably had probable cause” to do so,” according to court records. Under questioning, Burns referred to herself and the assailant as “Katie.” In a later hearing, officers testified that Burns had “confessed,” but neither the police nor the prosecutor told the court the alleged confession occurred while she was hypnotized.

The case was later thrown out, and Burns sued. The Supreme Court found that prosecutors still have immunity for behavior in a court hearing, but it doesn’t necessarily protect them when they provide legal advice to police.

The prosecution defendants Becher and Sandlin in the Parton case said they didn’t provide investigators with legal advice. They said they confirmed to investigators they would pursue a charge against Parton and said the “appropriate charge” for the theft of the gun was second-degree theft.

Broussard argued he never gave advice to investigators in the case.

Smith ruled all three prosecutors were entitled to immunity.