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Former Civil Defense Director Hits County With Federal Lawsuit

By David Howell

WATER VALLEY –  The county’s former civil defense director has filed a federal lawsuit against Yalobusha County, alleging that supervisors and Sheriff William “Lance” Humphreys violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

    Cecil Harrison filed the suit in federal court in Oxford last week, following his June termination after serving as Civil Defense Director for 11 years. Harrison is represented by Ripley attorney, Joseph R. Murray, II.    

    Harrison alleges that he suffered “humiliation, embarrassment and loss of reputation in his company” as a result of the Defendants’ conduct.

    The lawsuit, which tells one side of the story, alleges that supervisors and Sheriff Lance Humphreys harassed and intimidated Harrison after he opened Pit Row Grill, a bar and grill located on Hwy. 330, east of Coffeeville. The actions ultimately damaged his business and deprived him of his constitutional rights, according to the suit.

    Included in the 27-page lawsuit are two exhibits that are newspaper articles, one published in the Coffeeville Courier and a second published in the North Mississippi Herald.

    Board Attorney John Crow refuted the claims spelled out in the lawsuit.

    “The Board changed directors because he (Harrison) could not handle the job any more. We had a number of issues with him,” Crow told the Herald.

    “I am confident that the county will prevail, as we have in other suits of this nature, Crow told the Herald after Monday’s Board of Supervisor meeting. Harrison’s lawsuit was one of several items discussed during executive session during the meeting.

The Specifics

    The suit alleges that Harrison was terminated because he opened an establishment, the Pit Row Grill, after Yalobusha County voters legalized the sale of beer and light wine  following a Dec. 11, 2007, vote .

    The suit alleges that after the election, when Harrison opened his “eating and drinking” establishment on March 1, 2008, he received a harsh reception from all Defendants.

    Harrison alleges that Humphreys and the sheriff’s department  set up roadblocks in close proximity to Harrison’s establishment to intimidate and harass him. Harrison’s suit also alleges that deputies would enter Pit Row Grill to see which individuals were in the establishment. After the deputies would leave, they would go down the road and wait for the patrons to leave. Harrison alleges that the sheriff department “focused disproportionately on Mr. Harrison’s establishment,” and cites a nearby business that was not similarly targeted.

    Harrison also alleges that supervisors worked in concert with Humphreys, harassing and intimidating him on the job, telling him that the establishment interfered with Harrison’s duties as civil defense director.  

Major Points

    Harrison’s lawsuit has two primary sticking points: supervisors failed to provide him with a job description despite the fact that they adopted a job description prior to hiring his replacement was hired; and the sheriff’s department charged Harrison for operating an illegal gambling sting – charges that were later dismissed in Yalobusha County Justice Court. Included in the lawsuit, as Exhibit C, is the Order of Dismissal in the Justice Court of Yalobusha County, First Judicial District in which the charges for gambling and assisting gambling against Harrison were dropped on Sept. 8. The order is signed by Justice Court Judge Steve Riley, Harrison, and Harrison’s attorney, Bradley Peeples.

    Two other exhibits, “Exhibit A” and Exhibit B” are included in the lawsuit, the first an article published in the Coffeeville Courier which includes information from a June supervisor meeting in which a job description is adopted for Civil Defense Director position prior to hiring Harrison’s replacement.

    The second exhibit is an article published in the North Mississippi Herald featuring the crime report, which outlines arrests and reports handled by the sheriff’s department.

    In the report, the Herald published two arrests for gambling offenses, one was a Tillatoba business owner who was charged with operating an illegal gaming machine and the second was for Harrison operating an illegal poker game.

Requested Damages

    Harrison alleges that these actions were made with actual malice and/or constituted willful misconduct, which deterred him of his constitutional rights. Harrison ultimately closed his business on July 10.

    The suit alleges that there was no probable cause for the charges of gambling and assisting gambling and the charges were made out of malice because the Defendants were angry because Harrison supported alcohol sales in the county. The suit also alleges that Harrison was terminated because he exercised his First Amendment rights by supporting the sale of alcohol in the county and subsequently operating an establishment that served alcohol.

    The lawsuit does not specify a dollar amount amount sought by the plaintiff for damages, but requests the plaintiff be awarded nominal, compensatory and punitive damages by a jury for the multiple violations alleged by Harrison.

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