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Monday, April 20, 2009

Lawyer Sues Troopers Over Rough-Up

Lawyer Sues Troopers He Says Roughed Him Up for Using Cell Phone at Courthouse
The Daily Report by Greg Land - April 14, 2009

ATLANTA, GA - More than two years after he was thrown to the ground and arrested after being warned to put away his cell phone as he waited to plead a client's DUI case, charges against Marietta, Ga., attorney Billy L. Spruell have been dropped by the Fulton County district attorney. But the case is not over: Spruell has filed suit in federal court in Atlanta against the two state troopers who hauled him, bleeding and in handcuffs, out of a waiting area at the Office of State Administrative Hearings in downtown Atlanta and charged him with obstructing an officer. According to witnesses who spoke to the Daily Report at the time, Spruell was among several attorneys waiting outside the administrative courtroom in the Peachtree Street building housing OSAH on Feb. 13, 2007, when State Patrol Cpl. George R. Harper approached and told them to either put away their phones or leave the court offices. Attorney David M. Zagoria said Spruell continued to talk on his phone, but walked out past a security checkpoint to "a little alcove where the stairs are." Harper again told Spruell to leave the suite or hang up and, according to a State Patrol spokesman at the time, Spruell "became uncooperative" and cursed the officer. Harper, who was working off-duty at the court, attempted to arrest him. Trooper Stacey A. Forrest, who was attending court to testify in an unrelated case, pitched in to subdue Spruell, wrestling the then-68-year-old lawyer to the ground.

In the process, said Zagoria, Spruell was pushed into a wall, "and his head just made this sickening crunch." The troopers, said attorney Gregory A. Willis, who was also on hand, "slammed Billy's head into the wall, into this black metal frame. I saw hair and blood there afterward." Spruell's Feb. 10 suit accuses the troopers of excessive force and battery and essentially reiterates that version of events. It says that Harper followed Spruell into the hallway after ordering him from the waiting area "whereupon, suddenly and without warning, assaulted him, following which Defendant Forrest joined Defendant Harper and 'took him down,' which they did in such a violent way as to cause serious physical injuries." Among those injuries, says the suit, were a concussion and contusions and lacerations to his lip, face and head. His teeth were also damaged, and his wrist and shoulder were strained, it says. Spruell referred questions to his attorney, James A. Eidson of Hapeville, who said he had numerous witnesses to the arrest who could corroborate Spruell's version. "They charged him with obstruction, but they never even told him he was under arrest until after they tackled him," said Eidson. "What was he obstructing?"

In fighting that charge, Spruell sought the help of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' "Strike Force," which provides representation to member attorneys charged with contempt or other offenses during their representation of a client. He requested that Lawrenceville, Ga., attorney Christine A. Koehler, who was recently named president of the organization, take his case. On April 1 she received a letter from Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Kellie S. Hill of the office's Public Integrity Unit saying the charges had been dropped. Her office had "exhaustively investigated" the allegations surrounding the incident, wrote Hill, "and our findings indicate that there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution against your client, Mr. Spruell, or any other party involved." Eidson said that, as a result of that letter, he also will be adding a charge of false arrest to his complaint. On April 4, the office of Georgia Attorney General Thurbert E. Baker filed a motion to dismiss, citing sovereign immunity. Baker spokeswoman Kelley Jackson declined further comment on the case. A Georgia State Patrol public information officer, Lt. Paul L. Cosper, said he was unfamiliar with Spruell's suit and unaware of any related investigations conducted by his department. I don't know Mr. Spruell or what his intentions are," said Coster. "These troopers were doing their job."

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