By Patrick McCreless
A Blount County man recently filed a lawsuit against a former police officer and the city of Hanceville for alleged violations of his civil rights.
The lawsuit, which was filed June 5 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, alleges that in 2006 Thomas Sorrell — while in his official capacity as an officer of the Hanceville Police Department — caused Calvin Putman to be unlawfully arrested and deprived of his liberty against his will. The lawsuit further claims Sorrell intentionally, recklessly or negligently lied to Putman and caused him to suffer substantial personal injuries such as anxiety, severe emotional distress and embarrassment.
The lawsuit demands a trial by jury and that Sorrell and the city pay damages as well as court costs and attorney fees.
Hanceville Public Safety Director John Duchock, who was hired by the city in 2007, said he did not know much about the circumstances surrounding the lawsuit but confirmed Sorrell no longer works for the police department.
“He resigned,” Duchock said.
According to the lawsuit, on June 5, 2006, Putman drove to pick up his friend, Ellen Kahl, at her house in Hanceville and take her to dinner. On the way to dinner, Kahl spotted some banana trees sitting outside Mann’s Garden Shop, which was closed, and asked Putman to stop his car so she could look at them. The entire stop lasted a few minutes and no trees, plants or other items were removed from the premises, the lawsuit says.
After dinner, the two went to their homes. Shortly thereafter Sorrell, acting in his capacity as a police officer, went to Putman’s home and placed him under arrest for the theft of some plants at Mann’s. Sorrell then had Putman call Kahl to tell her that she was under arrest and to come to the Hanceville police station.
The lawsuit alleges Putman and Kahl were detained for more than two hours. During this time, Sorrell allegedly said he had video evidence of Kahl putting flowers into Putman’s car. Despite Putman’s request, Sorrell would not let him see the video.
The lawsuit states Putman and Kahl asked Sorrell numerous times if they could phone their attorneys but were repeatedly denied. Sorrell then left the room for 30 minutes and upon his return, stated “he was going to pull some strings” and that he “could make all this go away.”
Putman and Kahl then signed a statement releasing the Hanceville Police Department from any responsibility in the matter after Sorrell allegedly told them if they did not sign it, they would go to jail, their names would be published in the newspaper and it would cost $2,000 to get out of jail, the lawsuit claims.
After signing the statement, Putman and Kahl were read their Miranda rights for the first time and released. The lawsuit states no arrest report or arrest warrants were ever filed regarding the incident.
Approximately three weeks later, the lawsuit alleges Sorrell followed Kahl from Hanceville to Putman’s house while wearing his police uniform and driving a civilian motorcycle. Kahl allegedly pulled over to the side of the road several times to allow the motorcycle to pass, however, Sorrell never passed and continued to follow her.
After Kahl arrived at Putman’s home, Sorrell, armed with his duty issued gun, approached her and began laughing, the suit claims. After Sorrell refused to leave the premises, Putman called the Blountsville Police Department.
Sorrell was later arrested, charged and convicted for criminal trespassing due to the incident. According to the lawsuit, the conviction has been appealed.
While Duchock had no knowledge of Sorrell’s employment background, he said Hanceville Police Department hiring practices were not as stringent during the time the alleged incidents took place.
“All they (officers) had to do was fill out an application ... do a criminal history and an interview,” Duchock said.
Duchock said much has been done in the past year to improve the police department’s hiring practices.
“Now we do much more extensive background and reference checks,” Duchock said. “We check past places they worked .... talk to their chief and supervisor, check on their criminal history.”
Duchock added that the police department now only hires officers who have already passed the law enforcement certification required by the state.
“We don’t want someone who attracts lawsuits,” Duchock said. “Lawsuits can be done away with when you improve the hiring process.”
Neither Hanceville Mayor Katie Whitley nor Sorrell could be reached for comment by deadline.
By Patrick McCreless