A woman arrested in June 2008 by the Cannon County Sheriff's Department during its discovery of a marijuana growing operation has filed a lawsuit against the county.
The lawsuit was filed against Billy Nichols, in his official capacity as Sheriff of Cannon County, Charlie Wilder, in his capacity as a Cannon County Sheriff's Deputy and individually, and JOHN DOES, unknown employees of the Cannon County Sheriff's Department in their official and individual capacities.
Also named as a defendant is Mike Gannon, in his official capacity as County Executive Cannon County, Tennessee.
The suit was filed on June 15 of this year in United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, at Nashville, by Joann Johnson of 4545 Big Hill Road in the Short Mountain Community of Cannon County.
The facts alleged in the lawsuit by the plaintiff are as follows:
"On or about June 20, 2008, certain deputies of the Cannon County Sheriff's Department were conducting a fugitive hunt in middle Tennessee. One particular felon that the team of officers was looking for was Jim Flesher. Officers went to 4545 and 4501 Big Hill Road in Liberty, Tennessee, allegedly looking for Jim Flesher. Plaintiff Joann Johnson is the owner of the property at 4545 Big Hill Road. Plaintiff's ex-husband, Edward Johnson, is the owner of the property at 4501 Big Hill Road.
"The officers connected Jim Flesher to the Plaintiff because some of the Plaintiff's property was recovered in connection with an attempted arrest of Mr. Flesher in April, 2008. A motorcycle trailer belonging to Plaintiff was also recovered during officers failed attempt to apprehend Mr. Flesher on June 17, 2008. Plaintiff informed officers that Jim Flesher had previously been her employee.
"Officer conducted a warrantless search of the properties at 4501 and 4545 Big Hill Road. Officers claim that the search was valid because Plaintiff consented to a search of her home. The officers claim that such consent was effective to allow them to search both properties.
"Plaintiff and Edward Johnson have been legally divorced since 2002. As part of the divorce, the parties divided their real property. Germane to this case as the properties located on Bill Hill Road in Liberty. During the marriage, the Johnson's owned both 4501 and 4545 Big Hill Road. At no time before, during or after the marriage was 4501 and 4545 part of a common lot.
"Pursuant to the divorce, Edward Johnson issued to plaintiff a quitclaim deed to 4545 Big Hill Road, and Joann Johnson gave Edward Johnson a quitclaim deed to 4501. The tax records on and prior to June 20, 2008, confirm that Joann Johnson is the sole owner of 4545, and Edward Johnson is the sole owner of 4501.
"4545 Big Hill Road consists of a ten acre tract of land and a two-story house. 4501 Big Hill Road consists of a thirteen acre tract of land, a large shop building, a small storage unit, and a house. The structures located on the two properties are approximately one hundred yards apart and there are no roads, paths or trails connecting the properties. The properties have separate driveways and mailboxes.
"On June 20, 2008, Officers claim they arrived at Joann Johnson's house around 10:00 in the morning. Detective Charlie Wilder and several other officers arrived at Joann Johnson's house, told her why the officers were there, and asked her for permission to search her property.
"Officers then began searching, not only Joann Johnson's property at 4545 Big Hill Road, but also Edward Johnson's property at 4501. Detective Wilder stated that he assumed that all of the property, 4501 and 4545, was part of the 'Johnson property' and that Edward Johnson and Joann Johnson were married.
"Officers searched Plaintiff's property and found no evidence of illegal activity.
"During the warrantless search of Edward Johnson's property, officers allegedly came across marijuana leaves in plain view inside Edward Johnson's shop building. Based solely on the marijuana leaves officers allegedly saw inside Edward Johnson's shop, officers arrested Plaintiff.
"The officers placed Joann Johnson in handcuffs and later escorted her from her house to a police car. The local media was present on her property and took photographs of plaintiff as she was taken from her home.
"Officers illegally arrested Joann Johnson without probable cause that she had been engaged in any illegal activity whatsoever, this violating Plaintiff's right to be free from unreasonable seizures secured by the United States and Tennessee Constitutions. Following the arrest, Plaintiff's charges were dismissed after finding by a judge that the Defendants lacked probable cause to arrest or charge the Plaintiff with such crimes.
"The acts and omissions of Defendants described above constitute a deprivation of Plaintiff's civil rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1983 and 1986. Said violations of Plaintiff's civil rights were perpetrated by Defendants under color of law.
"As a direct and proximate result of the Defendants' acts, omissions of deliberate indifference and intentional acts, Plaintiff sustained damages. Upon information and belief, the injuries Plaintiff sustained have caused, and will continue to cause, Plaintiff to suffer embarrassment, emotional distress, mental anguish, a disruption of her normal every day activities, loss of employment and loss of enjoyment of pleasures of life.
"The conduct of Defendants in violating Plaintiff's civil rights, in acting with deliberate indifference and in conducting an illegal arrest, was provoked by an evil motive or intent and/or involved reckless or callous indifference to Plaintiff's federally protected rights so as to warrant an award of punitive damages.
"Plaintiff respectfully demands a jury trail."
The lawsuit also contains a "Prayer for Relief" which reads as follows:
"WHEREFORE, PREMISES CONSIDERED, Plaintiff respectfully demands judgement against defendants, and each of them, jointly and severally as follows:
1) That proper process issue and be served upon the Defendants, requiring them to answer this complaint within the time required by law;
2) That the Plaintiff be awarded a judgement for compensatory damages;
3) That the Plaintiff be awarded a judgement for punitive damages in an amount that is fair and just under the proof as presented at trial;
4) That the Plaintiff be awarded her costs, litigation costs, discretionary costs, pre- and post judgement interest, and attorney's fees pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1988;
5) That a permanent injunction issue in this case requiring Defendants to implement policies, procedures for their agents, and to properly train their agents;
6) That Plaintiff's cause be tried by a jury, and
7) That Plaintiff receives such other, further, and general relief as to which she is entitled."
Johnson is being represented by Mary Frances Parker of Wilson and Bradley in Murfreesboro. No monetary amount is specified in the papers filed with the court.
According to a report in the July 1, 2008 edition of The Cannon Courier, the Johnsons were arrested on June 20, 2008 when the U.S. Marshals Office and the Cannon County Sheriff's Department uncovered an indoor marijuana farm at their home at 4545 Big Hill Road in the Short Mountain Community.
The U.S. Marshals were in Cannon County at the time as part of a state-wide manhunt called Operation FALCON III, looking for a fugitive, Jim Flesher, who was reported to have been at the residence.
"We were searching the shop building adjacent to the residence for Mr. Flesher and found some marijuana leaves on the floor," Cannon County Sheriff Billy Nichols said at the time. "When we approached a small room at the rear of the building the odor of marijuana became stronger. We left some deputies to guard the property and came to town and obtained a search warrant for the property."
When the officers returned with the warrant and began looking in the shop they found a concealed wall to an underground room complete with a cooling system and growing lights and timers. The two rooms were approximately 10 feet below the shop building and accessible by a small homemade ladder.
Edward Johnson, who was 55 at the time, and Joann C. Johnson, who was 42, were arrested at the scene. A total of 140 marijuana plants were removed with a reported street value of $280,000.
Edward Johnson was subsequently indicted by the Cannon County Grand Jury and was also arrested in March of this year on charges of possession of a still apparatus and possession of unstamped alcoholic beverages by the Tennessee Alcohol Beverage Commission. Flesher was captured in Arkansas in August of 2008.
Edward Johnson was granted an Interlocutory Appeal in the charges against him stemming from the June 2008 arrest. The court found that Interlocutory Appeal "is appropriate in this case as the review may prevent needless, expensive and protracted litigation in the event the challenged order is subsequently reversed. Because there are facts favorable to the state and to the defendant, the application of the law to the facts herein causes this to be a "close case" situation and an interlocutory appeal will result in a net reduction in the duration and expense of the litigation in the event the challenge order is reversed. The challenged order is an order denying Defendant's Motion to Suppress based upon an alleged unlawful search and seizure of the Defendant's property."
Edward Johnson is scheduled to appear in court again next Tuesday on the alcohol-related charges.
Flesher was captured in Arkansas in August of 2008. He pled guilty to charges of possession of methamphetamine with intent to sell, felony reckless endangerment, convicted felon in possession of a handgun, theft over $1,000, theft over $1,000 and theft over $1,000.
The Courier will report more information on this story as it becomes available.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Cannon Courier requested, and paid for, a copy of this lawsuit from the United States District Court in Nashville Tuesday afternoon. The Courier did not request a copy, receive a copy from or speak with any party named in the suit prior to obtaining it.