Thursday, November 19, 2009

Court of appeals upholds Hodges immunity from suit

In a decision rendered Tuesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has partially upheld a U.S. District Court ruling granting former Dougherty District Attorney Ken Hodges immunity from lawsuits stemming from the case of a former Dougherty County assistant police chief, Woodrow "Woody" Hart, who claimed Hodges violated his rights in 2003 after Hart was convicted of criminal activity.

In its decision, the Appeals Court affirmed the District Court's ruling that Hodges was serving in his capacity as chief prosecutor for Dougherty County when he tried to get Hart jailed in a Georgia prison following a 24-month federal prison sentence that Hart agreed to serve after pleading guilty to wire fraud and bribery charges.

The court, however, vacated part of the District Court's ruling and remanded it, saying that Hodges' statements to The Albany Herald following Hart's release from federal prison did not entitle him to absolute immunity just because of his role as a district attorney. It also stated that the District Court erred in not adequately opining on Hodges' possible qualified immunity.

Wednesday, Hodges said that he was pleased with the court's ruling.
"I did what I believed was the right thing to ensure that not even police officers were above the law and that Woody Hart spent every day incarcerated that he was supposed to," he said.

Hart was indicted in federal and state courts on charges related to a bribery conspiracy stemming from a payment he received in exchange for declining to investigate a blackmail scheme.

A deal was reached between Hart, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Hodges. Under that deal, Hart would serve a 27-month sentence in a federal prison. Upon his release, Hart would be subject to a 93-month probated sentence on the state charges, giving him a total incarceration time of of 27 months in a federal facility.

But after Hart was released three months early in 2003, he said that Hodges called local authorities in Arkansas where he was imprisoned and had them pick him up in shackles from the federal facility and hold him for transport back to a Georgia prison to serve the remainder of his term after a "detainer" was placed on him by the Georgia Department of Corrections. After about 28 hours of being locked up after his release by federal authorities, the court ordered his immediate release from confinement and later granted a sentence of time-served on the state charges.

The statement in question that Hodges gave to The Herald on March 14, 2003, says in part, "If he does (report) he will serve out the balance of his prison term. If he does not, he will have new legal issues to deal with."

"My comments made were factually correct and were the truth," Hodges said. "So even if there is no immunity, I did not defame anyone. I simply told the truth."

Hart is suing based on his assertion that Hodges and co-defendants William Amideo, the general counsel for the Georgia Department of
Corrections, and Frederick Head, the warden of Jackson State Prison, overstepped their professional bounds during the course of the incident.

Hodges, who is running for Georgia attorney general, also is being sued in a separate case currently under consideration by the 11th Circuit of Appeals. The case focuses on whether Hodges overstepped his bounds as district attorney when he got involved in a dispute between Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and local medical office accountant Charles Rehberg over the dissemination of the Phoebe Factoids — a series of faxes critical of Phoebe's financial dealings.

Oral arguments in that case have been scheduled for January.

Reporter: J.D. Sumner, government writer of The Albany Herald

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