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Property owner’s lawsuit against Sheriff in Alabama for property loss fails

Mr. Spencer sued Sheriff Jonathan Benison pursuant to 42 U.S.C §1983 claiming a violation of his Fifth Amendment rights against deprivation of property and liberty rights.  He alleged that Benison ordered him to remove traffic cones and vehicles that were preventing Spencer’s neighbor from completing construction on an easement that Spencer alleged encroached on his property.  Spencer claimed that by ordering him to remove these obstructions, the Sheriff deprived him of property without due process and that Benison conspired with others to take and use his property without due process or compensation.

Spencer’s dispute began after an entity called Belle Mere Properties purchased a parcel of real estate from Spencer which contained an easement of 25 feet on either side of the existing power line for the purpose of egress and ingress.  Belle Mere then leased the property to a bingo hall.  Soon after Spencer and Belle Mere began disputing over the boundaries of the easement when Belle Mere decided to expand a previously constructed roadway running through the easement.  After Spencer made several calls to the police claiming that a bulldozer was trespassing, Benison responded to the scene and found that Spencer had placed cones and vehicles blocking construction which backed up traffic on U.S. Highway 11.

Concerned that the obstructing cones and vehicles blocking customers from accessing the bingo hall would become a public safety issue as the fire department might not have access in case of an emergency, Benison ordered Spencer to remove the cones and vehicles and threatened arrest if he continued blocking the road.  Spencer claimed that because of Benison’s order he stopped confronting Belle Mere about its construction.  Belle Mere was ultimately able to complete construction of a roadway that encroached on his property.  Spencer did not show any evidence that he pursued litigation or sought an injunction in state court after Benison issued his order.

In the federal civil litigation at the trial level, the district court denied Benison’s motion to dismiss for qualified immunity because it found that he was not acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when he ordered Spencer to remove the cones and vehicles.  The appellate court disagreed.  To prove he acted within the scope of his discretionary authority, Benison only had to show he acted pursuant to his duties and within the scope of his authority.

After reviewing Alabama state law for the scope of the sheriff’s authority, the appellate court found that the sheriff and his/her deputies are law enforcement officers authorized to preserve peace and public order and this includes enforcement of motor vehicle and traffic laws.  It found of course that as an Alabama sheriff, it was a legitimate function for Benison to seek removal of cones and vehicles for the purpose of achieving public safety.  Benison carried out his duties by threatening to arrest Spencer if he did not remove the cones and vehicles.

The appellate court also found that Benison was not the cause of Belle Mere’s construction of the road that led to an encroachment.  Spencer decision not to pursue litigation or an injunction led to the taking of his property.  Any property loss Spencer suffered cannot be blamed on Benison’s order.

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