Prosecutorial Immunity Remains Strong
In Cooke, Ronnie and Lee Bartlett owned and operated Captain Jack’s, a seafood restaurant, which included “coin-operated amusement machines.” Captain Jack's Crab Shack, Inc. v. Cooke, 21-11112, at *10 (11th Cir. Sept. 22, 2022). A coin-operated amusement machine is any “machine ... used by the public to provide amusement or entertainment whose operation requires the payment of or the insertion of [money or tokens] and the result of whose operation depends in whole or in part upon the skill of the player.” O.C.G.A. § 50-27-70(b)(2)(A). Georgia law allows players who win to redeem “noncash” prizes worth up to five dollars for a single play. O.C.G.A. § 16-12-35(d)(2). However, it is a “misdemeanor of a high and aggravated nature” for any person owning a coin operated amusement machine to “give[ ] to any other person money as a reward for the successful play or winning of any such amusement game.” O.C.G.A. § 16-12-35(g).
On May 1, 2015, an officer with the Byron Police Department signed an affidavit in support of search and arrest warrants for the restaurant and the Bartletts. In her affidavit, Officer Bickford averred that an undercover officer, Christine Welch, went to Captain Jack's five times. While Officer Welch was there, she played the games and was paid $330 in cash out of Captain Jack's register for winning on “video poker” machines. Officer Welch also saw a woman win $2,500 and watched Mr. Bartlett remove money from the games to gather enough cash to pay the woman. On May 5, 2015, the warrants were executed and the Bartletts were arrested. On that same day, District Attorney David Cooke and Special Assistant District Attorney Michael Lambros filed a civil case against the Bartletts. In August 2016, more than a year after the prosecutors filed the civil racketeering case, the civil charges were dropped. However, criminal charges were later brought against the Bartletts, and they were indicted and convicted of commercial gambling, possessing gambling equipment, and keeping a gambling place. The Georgia Court of Appeals ultimately reversed the Bartletts’ conviction. Cooke, 21-11112, at *10.
On August 9, 2016, the Bartletts asserted claims under § 1983 against District Attorney Cooke, Special Assistant District Attorney Lambros, and the two officers. Id. The Bartletts alleged that the defendants secured the warrants even though “knew they had no evidence of any of [the] acts.” They also alleged that they conducted the search and arrest based on “fabricated evidence” in the affidavits and “at the insistence of ... Lambros and Cooke.” The Bartletts also alleged that the prosecutors “directed” the “illegal raid.”
The prosecutors in Cooke sought dismissal and the district court granted the motion for three reasons: (1) the Bartletts offered no more than “conclusory” and “speculative” allegations that the prosecutors “fabricated” evidence and “knew” they were pursuing false charges; (2) the prosecutors were absolutely immune for their role in “initiating and pursuing criminal prosecution;” and, (3) the prosecutors were entitled to qualified immunity because it was not clearly established that “the prosecutors had to interfere [intervene] in the officers’ investigation.” The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court's orders dismissing the Bartletts’ claims against the prosecutors. The Eleventh Circuit also held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and dismissed the Bartletts’ claims.