Lawyers win U.S. appeals court victory

By Peter H. Milliken


Lawyers who filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging Mahoning County’s system of issuing arrest warrants is unconstitutional have won a victory in a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously reversed a federal trial judge’s dismissal of two plaintiffs from the civil suit.

The Cincinnati-based appeals panel ruled that Judge Sara Lioi of U.S. District Court erred when she dismissed Shannon Graves and Amber Sexton from the suit because they pleaded guilty to criminal charges stemming from arrest warrants for which they complained.

The Akron-based Judge Lioi had dismissed Graves, 24, who listed addresses in Youngstown and Berlin Center, and Sexton, 24, of McCartney Road, from the suit on the grounds that a finding that their arrests violated the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution would imply that their criminal convictions weren’t valid.

The Fourth Amendment bars unreasonable searches and seizures and requires probable cause for issuance of warrants for searches and seizures of people and their belongings.

“The district court erred because a finding of a Fourth Amendment violation would not necessarily imply the invalidity of their convictions,” the appeals court ruled.

Gina Bricker, an assistant Mahoning County prosecutor, has asked for a re-consideration of the matter by all nine 6th Circuit judges on the grounds that the decision in this case conflicts with their other decisions.

Graves and Sexton are among nine plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, who allege Mahoning County violates the Fourth Amendment by allowing untrained court clerks to issue arrest warrants. The suit was filed by Attys. Sebastian Rucci and James A. Vitullo.

“We believe we have a good defense to the claim,” Bricker said. “We will vigorously defend the case once it’s returned to the active docket” of Judge Lioi, Bricker said.

When the case returns to her, Judge Lioi will conduct a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion to expand the case to represent some 60,000 people who purportedly were arrested in Mahoning County in recent years on improperly issued warrants, Vitullo said.

The lawsuit seeks a federal court declaration that Mahoning’s arrest-warrant issuance process is unconstitutional and an injunction barring the county from continuing the current procedure, plus unspecified monetary damages to be awarded to the plaintiffs.

Besides Mahoning County, defendants in the federal lawsuit are Austintown, Beaver, Boardman, Goshen, Green, Jackson, Milton, Smith and Springfield townships.

Austintown police arrested Graves on felony drug charges in 2009, but she ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor drug charge, fined $100, and given a six-month suspended jail sentence.

The next year, Milton Township police charged her with felony theft, but she pleaded guilty to an amended misdemeanor charge of unauthorized use of property. She was fined $250 and given a 30-day suspended jail term in that case.

Sexton pleaded guilty in a 2010 Austintown case to a misdemeanor prostitution charge, was fined $250 and given a six-month suspended jail term.

Sexton’s charge alleged that she engaged in prostitution while working as an exotic dancer at the Rucci-owned Go Go Girls Cabaret in Austintown.

Criminal charges against the other seven plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit were dismissed.

The lawsuit alleges deputy clerks in the county’s area courts have been issuing arrest warrants based simply on a police officer’s statements without any finding of probable cause for an arrest. The county has area courts in Austintown, Boardman, Canfield and Sebring.

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