Ashcrafts’ suit tossed from federal appeals court

Published 10:56 am Friday, April 11, 2014

A wide-ranging lawsuit against the City of Vicksburg, former Mayor Paul Winfield and several city police officers that ended in the city’s favor in a lower court has been upheld in federal appeals court.

Lisa and Randy Ashcraft, who own 1221 Washington St., had sued the city and the other defendants in 2011, claiming various forms of harassment that dated to 2009. The Florida couple sought unspecified damages and claimed violations their constitutional rights.

In July, U.S. District Court in Jackson ruled their claims, though significant, didn’t pass legal tests to constitute a violation of their constitutional rights.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, in a ruling Tuesday from Houston-based senior judge Thomas M. Reavley, San Antonio-based Judge Edward C. Prado and Houston-based Judge Edith H. Jones, backed up the district court ruling on several points, including arguments from Winfield and former deputy police chief John Dolan that each was entitled to qualified immunity, as they were both public officials.

The appeals bench ruled the couple failed to demonstrate a 2011 traffic stop of one of the Ashcrafts’ vehicles for having an out-of-state car tag, which went to trial in municipal court and dismissed, rose to the level of a constitutional violation because Dolan had, in the court’s words, “reasonable suspicion” that they were Mississippi residents. Her claim the stop was politically motivated for their support for former Mayor Laurence Leyens in the ’09 city elections, among other things, was not completely discounted in either court. However, the appellate court ruled that, “without a resulting violation of Ms. Ashcraft’s constitutional rights, (Winfield) does not abrogate his qualified immunity under these circumstances.” The Ashcrafts must pay all the defendants’ court costs associated with the appeal, the judges ruled.

Winfield is serving a 25-month sentence in federal prison in the Ashcrafts’ hometown of Pensacola, Fla. on bribery charges. Dolan, also a former sheriff’s deputy, was not retained by the Flaggs administration when the city board appointed a new slate of municipal officers after last July’s elections.

They had planned a bakery in the building they own when they purchased it in 2008. Built in the 1960s, it was home to First Federal Savings & Loan and the Vicksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau before it was deemed unsafe in 2006 after the neighboring building collapsed during renovations. Last fall, the couple had asked permission from the city to demolish the structure, citing the cost of paying property taxes in a building they no longer wanted and, at one point, parked junked cars, painted graffiti on boards blocking the exterior windows and hung underwear from the balcony. In October, Randy Ashcraft requested the couple’s permit be withdrawn.