Grech v. Clayton County, Ga.

Decision Date07 July 2003
Docket NumberNo. 01-13151.,01-13151.
Citation335 F.3d 1326
PartiesBrian L. GRECH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. CLAYTON COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit

Bruce R. Millar, Jonesboro, GA, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

Bridgette M. Palmer, Hancock & Echols, Brian Richard Dempsey and Jack Reynolds Hancock, Hancock, Story &amp Dempsey, LLC, Forest Park, GA, for Defendant-Appellee.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.


HULL, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents the question of whether a sheriff in Georgia acts as a county policymaker for purposes of the county's liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. After review, we conclude that the defendant Clayton County has no authority to direct or control the Sheriff in his law enforcement function, that the Sheriff is not a county policymaker for that function, and thus, that Clayton County has no § 1983 liability for the Sheriff's law enforcement policies and conduct regarding warrant information on the CJIS systems or the training and supervision of his employees in that regard. We affirm the entry of judgment in favor of the defendant Clayton County.


Plaintiff Brian Grech ("Grech") brought this § 1983 action solely against Clayton County, Georgia ("Clayton County"). Grech's complaint asserts that he was falsely arrested on an expired bench warrant because of the Sheriff's policy of permitting invalid warrants to remain on certain computer databases and of inadequately training and supervising his employees. We discuss both Grech's 1985 arrest, which resulted in a bench warrant, and his 1998 arrest on that warrant.

A. Grech's 1985 Arrest

In 1985, Grech was arrested for DUI and speeding in Clayton County, Georgia. The following morning, he was released from jail on bond and was given a court date of June 13, 1985, for both charges. On that date, Grech failed to appear in the State Court of Clayton County. Grech mistakenly believed that he could handle the charges from his residence in Kentucky. On June 24, 1985, the State Court of Clayton County issued a bench warrant that revoked Grech's bond and authorized law enforcement officers to arrest him. That bench warrant referenced the case numbers for the DUI and speeding charges and stated that Grech had failed to appear in State Court.

On June 24, 1985, the bench warrant was entered into the local computer database shared by the courts and the Sheriff's Office in Clayton County. On July 5, 1985, employees of the Clayton County Sheriff's Office entered the bench warrant into a statewide computer database of criminal information, which is organized and regulated by the Georgia Crime Information Center ("GCIC"). The GCIC's statewide database is called the "Criminal Justice Information System" ("CJIS") and is accessible by law enforcement agencies throughout Georgia. As detailed later, the Sheriff's Office refers to its local database as the CJIS system and uses the same local terminal to access the GCIC's statewide CJIS system. Both the statewide and the local CJIS databases contain warrant information on "wanted" individuals who may be arrested by law enforcement officers.

In addition to issuing the bench warrant, the State Court of Clayton County sent Grech a letter notifying him that he had missed his court date. Grech voluntarily returned to Georgia and entered a nolo contendere plea to the speeding ticket and a guilty plea to DUI on July 12, 1985. The State Court judge sentenced Grech and reprimanded him for missing his previous court date.

Grech alleges that he was not informed that the State Court earlier had issued a bench warrant. Grech assumed that the charges against him were resolved after he pled to them, was convicted, and paid his fine. The State Court reported the pleas on the local CJIS system but never removed its bench warrant from that system. The Sheriff's Office never removed it from either the local or statewide CJIS systems. Instead, the bench warrant remained active for thirteen years on both systems until July 3, 1998.

B. Grech's 1998 Arrest

On July 3, 1998, a City of Fayetteville police officer stopped Grech because one of his car's tail lights was not functioning. The City of Fayetteville is in Fayette County, Georgia, which neighbors Clayton County, Georgia. When the city police officer ran a routine check on Grech's driver's license, the GCIC's CJIS records revealed an outstanding bench warrant dating back to 1985. Grech tried to explain to the city police officer that there was a mistake in the records because he had taken care of the 1985 charges. The city police officer requested advice from the Clayton County Sheriff's Office on how to proceed. After verifying its records, the Sheriff's Office responded that Grech's 1985 bench warrant was still active. Thereafter, the city police officer arrested Grech.

Initially transported to the jail in Fayette County, Grech later was transferred to the jail in Clayton County and then released on bond. Grech spent nine hours in jail. On August 17, 1998, a judge on the State Court of Clayton County returned the posted bond to Grech. Clayton County emphasizes that, prior to Grech's arrest, the State Court never withdrew its 1985 bench warrant for Grech, and thus, that the Sheriff's Office did not err in not removing that warrant from the GCIC's CJIS systems.1

C. Procedural History

In 1999, Grech brought a § 1983 action naming Clayton County as the sole defendant. Grech's complaint alleged that his constitutional rights were violated when he was arrested in 1998 pursuant to a 1985 bench warrant that the Sheriff's Office failed to remove from the CJIS systems.2 According to Grech, defendant Clayton County's "failure to ensure adequate training, policies, procedures, practices, and customs regarding the use of the GCIC Computer System constituted a pattern or practice of deliberate indifference and led directly and foreseeably to the arrest of the Plaintiff." In addition, Grech claimed that Clayton County had a custom and policy of permitting errors in warrant information to occur and to remain on the CJIS systems and of failing to prevent invalid criminal warrants from being on those systems.

In 2000, Clayton County moved for summary judgment on all claims.3 Clayton County asserted that it had no § 1983 liability for the acts of the Sheriff or his deputies because the Sheriff was an agent of the state, not a policymaker for the county.4

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of defendant Clayton County on all claims. The district court concluded that the Sheriff was not a § 1983 policymaker for Clayton County when performing his law enforcement duties. The district court emphasized that under Georgia law, Clayton County does not control or direct the Sheriff in the performance of his law enforcement duties. Nor does Clayton County have policymaking authority for the Sheriff's Office's compliance with the GCIC's regulations or the training and supervision of the Sheriff's employees in that regard. Grech timely appealed.

A. County Authority and Policy Required

The Supreme Court has placed strict limitations on municipal liability under § 1983. A county's liability under § 1983 may not be based on the doctrine of respondeat superior. City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385, 109 S.Ct. 1197, 103 L.Ed.2d 412 (1989); Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018. (1978). A county is "liable under section 1983 only for acts for which [the county] is actually responsible." Marsh v. Butler County, 268 F.3d 1014, 1027 (11th Cir.2001) (en banc). Indeed, a county is liable only when the county's "official policy" causes a constitutional violation. Monell, 436 U.S. at 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018. Thus, Grech must "identify a municipal `policy' or `custom' that caused [his] injury." Gold v. City of Miami, 151 F.3d 1346, 1350 (11th Cir.1998) (quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original) (citing Bd. of County Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403, 117 S.Ct. 1382, 137 L.Ed.2d 626 (1997)).5

A plaintiff, like Grech, has two methods by which to establish a county's policy: identify either (1) an officially promulgated county policy or (2) an unofficial custom or practice of the county shown through the repeated acts of a final policymaker for the county. Monell, 436 U.S. at 690-91, 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018; Brown v. Neumann, 188 F.3d 1289, 1290 (11th Cir.1999) (citing City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 121, 108 S.Ct. 915, 99 L.Ed.2d 107 (1988)). Because a county rarely will have an officially-adopted policy of permitting a particular constitutional violation, most plaintiffs, and Grech, must show that the county has a custom or practice of permitting it and that the county's custom or practice is "the `moving force [behind] the constitutional violation.'"6 City of Canton, 489 U.S. at 389, 109 S.Ct. 1197 (alteration in original) (citing Monell, 436 U.S. at 694, 98 S.Ct. 2018 and Polk County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 326, 102 S.Ct. 445, 70 L.Ed.2d 509 (1981)).

Under either avenue, a plaintiff (1) must show that the local governmental entity, here the county, has authority and responsibility over the governmental function in issue and (2) must identify those officials who speak with final policymaking authority for that local governmental entity concerning the act alleged to have caused the particular constitutional violation in issue. Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737, 109 S.Ct. 2702, 105 L.Ed.2d 598 (1989); Hill v. Clifton, 74 F.3d 1150, 1152 (11th Cir.1996) (citing Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 106 S.Ct. 1292, 89 L.Ed.2d 452 (1986)).

In this case, the parties do not dispute that a Georgia sheriff acts as a policymaker; instead, their...

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