A Bibb County hearing officer has upheld Sheriff David Davis’ firing of former deputy Clayton Sutton for insubordination.
Sutton had been assigned to administrative duty at the sheriff’s office’s training division while the GBI investigated his conduct during a March 20 shooting that involved Sutton wounding a dog while chasing suspects.
As part of the reassignment, the sheriff issued a written order barring Sutton from performing any “law enforcement functions.”
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When Davis fired Sutton June 6, he said Sutton had violated the order by pursuing people he suspected of criminal activity and using his gun and handcuffs to detain them June 4.
In a ruling dated Aug. 13, Macon lawyer Joel Howe found that Sutton’s actions clearly fell within any reasonable definition of “law enforcement functions” and that he was not “similarly situated to a private citizen” who could perform a citizen’s arrest.
Although the ruling wasn’t released until Monday, Sutton got the news a couple days after the ruling was issued, said his lawyer, Arthur Phillips.
Phillips said he is drafting a petition to be filed in Bibb County Superior Court requesting that a judge there review the case and Howe’s findings.
Sutton, who remains unemployed, is seeking to be reinstated and to receive back pay.
The deputy, initially hired by Macon police in 2006, came under heavy scrutiny in December 2012 when he shot and killed Sammie “Junebug” Davis Jr. in the Kroger parking lot on Pio Nono Avenue after Davis attacked him. The shooting later was ruled justified.
The sheriff said Monday he is pleased with Howe’s decision.
“All along I felt like I was doing the right thing, doing what I needed to do to maintain the order at the sheriff’s office and protect the citizens,” Davis said. “We’re waiting to see what the next phase in this will be.”
'I WAS TRYING TO DO THE RIGHT THING
Sutton’s July 14 hearing was closed to the public at Sutton’s request. Hearings such as Sutton’s are generally open, but Bibb County’s civil service guidelines give employees the option to close them.
A transcript released Monday outlines arguments by lawyers representing both sides as well as testimony from Sutton, his supervisor and the sheriff.Assistant County Attorney Opie Bowen said the ruling and transcript weren’t subject to release under the state’s open records law until 10 days after the hearing officer’s decision. The disclosure date fell on Saturday when county offices were closed.
According to the transcript:
Sutton got off work at 4 p.m. June 4. He drove home toward Houston County on Ga. 247 in an unmarked car issued to him by the sheriff’s office.
Dressed in slacks with a shirt bearing a Bibb County logo, he also had a county-issued gun. His service pistol had been taken as part of the GBI’s shooting investigation in March, but he had been issued a new one.
Sutton spotted a suspicious car parked in a wooded area, and he saw men putting metal objects in the trunk.
Sutton testified that he tried to call an investigator he knew but didn’t get an answer. He then called dispatch and asked for an on-duty deputy to help.
Before a deputy could arrive, the car was on the move, heading north on Ga. 247. The car’s driver turned in to the Middle Georgia Regional Airport area. The driver stopped at a stop sign near the Pactiv plant.
Sutton, who followed the car and gave its tag number to dispatchers, stopped a few car lengths back.
“I was trying to avoid any contact with them,” he testified.
Instead of moving on through the intersection, the car stayed at the stop sign, and a man got out. He opened the trunk and rifled around inside before closing it and looking toward Sutton.
“He then began walking from his car towards me, began waving his hands at me, pointing at me,” Sutton testified.
Sutton said he thought the man might have retrieved a weapon from the trunk.
The man kept walking closer until he got about 10 yards from Sutton’s car.
“At that point in time I felt that, you know, I may be in some kind of danger,” Sutton testified.
Sutton said he got out of his car, with his gun drawn — but pointed down at his side — and told the man to get on the ground. When he complied, Sutton reasoned that the other man and woman in the car could pose a danger, and he ordered them to get out of the car.
He retrieved two sets of handcuffs from his trunk for the two men. Not having a third set, he told the woman to sit in front of one of the cars.
Deputies arrived about two minutes later.
Sutton testified that he helped open the suspicious car’s trunk after one of the deputies — a female sergeant who outranked him — asked for his help. He also drove her back to the spot where he first saw the car in the woods.
He said the sergeant told him to find the owner of a nearby abandoned house, but she found the owner instead. They asked the owner if he had a red lawn mower like the one Sutton saw in the car’s trunk.
The owner replied that he had a mower like they described. The sergeant, who said she was being bitten by mosquitoes, stayed behind in her car while Sutton went with the property owner to see if his mower was missing. It wasn’t.
During his testimony, Sutton said the deputies who responded to the incident were aware that he wasn’t supposed to participate in “law enforcement activities.”
“I was trying to do the right thing,” he said. “I was trying to stay out of the investigation, but still provide the same information that any witness to a crime would give to law enforcement officers.”
GBI PROBE NEARLY COMPLETE
Phillips contended Sutton didn’t do anything that any private citizen could not do under Georgia law to enact a citizen’s arrest.
He also argued that the definition of “law enforcement functions” was unclear and that Sutton didn’t know what activities he was not allowed to perform.
Phillips pointed to Sutton being asked to drive inmates from the county jail to the sheriff’s office firing range days before his firing as an example of him being instructed to participate in “law enforcement activities” as a guard.
Cara Cotton, the sheriff’s office’s director of strategic management, served as Sutton’s supervisor while he was assigned to the training division where she serves as director.
Cotton testified that Sutton asked her for clarification of the sheriff’s order, and she sought input from the sheriff.
Sutton was then told to call on-duty deputies if he saw any criminal activity.
When he asked about what to do if an inmate tried to escape while he was ferrying prisoners to the training area, he was told to let them run and notify an on-duty deputy, she said.
Cotton said deputies assigned to the training division, such as Sutton, often are asked to drive inmates in addition to their other duties, which include answering the phone, helping with firearms requalification tests and preparing classrooms.
Civilian bailiffs also drive inmates, she said.
The sheriff testified that he reassigned Sutton to administrative duties at the training division instead of placing him on leave with pay so he could still perform work for the county while his actions relating to the March shooting were being investigated.
The GBI’s investigation into the shooting, which involved Sutton wounding a dog and chasing men on Cherry Avenue, is nearing completion.
In that incident, one of the men claimed Sutton got out of his car with his gun drawn, fired shots at the barking dog as it charged at him and also shot toward the men, injuring Shawn Taylor, then 42.
Sutton claimed the man was hurt when he was ordered to the ground and suffered an abrasion on his knee.
Over several weeks, GBI agents and crime scene investigators examined all the evidence in the case, including forensics from the location.
Agents are set to turn over the results of their probe Thursday to Bibb District Attorney David Cooke and the sheriff.
“We don’t take a position,” said J.T. Ricketson, special agent in charge of the Perry office of the GBI. “We just present what we’ve got.”
Cooke will determine if any laws were broken, and Davis will check to see if Sutton violated any department policy in that incident.
Writer Liz Fabian contributed to this report.