Ealum lawsuit dismissed



LEESBURG, Ga. -- A summary judgment sought by a pair of former Lee County Sheriff's deputies, who now serve as Lee government officials, in a lawsuit filed by former Lee County Commissioner Jo Ealum and her sister Susie Ealum was granted by U.S. District Court Judge W. Louis Sands on Wednesday.

Sands ruled that former deputies Jim Wright and Marshal Wilcox did not violate the Ealum sisters' Fourth, Eighth and 14th Amendment rights, as the pair had claimed in a lawsuit filed Oct. 30, 2006, when the deputies arrested the Ealums for their participation in a Nov. 1, 2005 party. A number of underage persons, including Susie Ealum, were arrested for illegal consumption of alcohol at the party.

Wright now serves as Lee County's lone Code Enforcement officer, and Wilcox is the county's zoning administrator.

In the 25-page ruling, Sands wrote, "As the Court found above in the context of the alleged illegal search of Plaintiffs' mobile home, Defendants arrested Plaintiffs for violations of the law based upon what they reasonably believed were exigent circumstances and probable cause. ... Based on the record before the Court, facts existed that supported Defendants' belief that underage drinking was occurring in violation of the law."

Wright said Thursday he is pleased to see the matter finally settled.

"This has been dragging on and on, so when I got the call last night from our attorney saying the case was over, it was a huge relief," Wright said Thursday. "At one point, it looked like Marshal and I were going to lose our jobs because Jo Ealum, as an elected commissioner, threatened to go after us.

"We did our jobs, and for that we were accused of doing things we didn't do. On the night of the incident, I told Jo Ealum that my job was not to look the other way when I saw the law being broken. She told me 'If that's your job, you won't have it for long'."

Rick Strickland and Paul Scott with the Brunswick law firm Brown, Readdick, Bumgartner, Carter, Strickland & Watkins said Sands' ruling included the stipulation that the Ealums would pay all ancillary costs incurred by Wright and Wilcox over the course of the case.

"This was the result we expected," Strickland said in a phone interview Thursday. "This is the kind of stuff our firm handles every day, and it was obvious that Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Wright had made legitimate arrests in this case.

"I'm sure politics played a prominent role in what actually happened, but the legal issues were so clear that the political issues were not significant."

Attempts to contact Wilcox and the Ealums on Thursday were not successful.

Wright said Thursday the incident that led to the Ealum sisters' lawsuit came as part of a routine patrol in the county.

"Myself and another deputy were working a week-night shift, and we had pulled into the parking lot of a curb store," Wright said. "Marshal was on his beat, and when he saw us he pulled in to talk. While there, we heard noise from what was obviously a loud party, so we went over to tell the folks to hold the noise down.

"When we pulled up, there were 15 or so people there and they took flight. That made us suspicious, and when we got out we could smell alcohol. I made contact with Jo Ealum, and it was obvious she had been drinking. I knew she had been elected to the County Commission, so I contacted the chief deputy (Dennis Parker) to find out what to do. He said to treat it like any other case."

Joe Ealum was eventually charged with three misdemeanors: obstruction of an officer, furnishing alcohol to a minor and keeping a disorderly home. Others at the party, which was held at a trailor occupied by Jo Ealum, were charged with underage drinking.

In Wright's report of the incident, he wrote that Jo Ealum said, "I did respect y'all, but y'all are not worth a s***" while trying to "obstruct" the deputies as they made arrests. The report also states Susie Ealum screamed and kicked twice at the deputy arresting her and "continuously beat the window (of a sheriff's vehicle) with her feet and head for at least 20 minutes" after being arrested.

On Feb. 2, 2006, Judge Rucker Smith dismissed the charges against both of the Ealum sisters in Lee County Superior Court, ruling that Wright and Wilcox had made an illegal search of Ealum's residence without probable cause.

The Ealums' lawsuit claimed Wright and Wilcox violated their Fourth Amendment constitutional right by virtue of an illegal search and seizure, their Eight Amendment guarantee of freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and their 14th Amendment right to substantive and procedural due process.

On Jan. 22, 2008, Wright and Wilcox filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by Sands Wednesday.

Strickland said the Ealums' military service, which led to a stay in the proceedings, was chiefly responsible for the length of the case.