SC affirms dismissal of civil rights suit

By Lawrence Smith | Nov 20, 2012

CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court has upheld a lower court’s decision that dismissed a Nicholas County man’s civil rights suit.

The lawsuit alleged a deputy sheriff’s inaction caused him to be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile.

The Court on Nov. 16 affirmed a decision rendered last year by Randolph Circuit Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong in dismissing Jeffrey Alan Hylton’s and Tamara Hylton Woods’ lawsuit against Nicholas Sheriff Wetzel Bennett, Deputy Henry Spinks and the Nicholas County Commission.

The Court, in a unanimous three-page memorandum opinion, said Wilfong, who was appointed following Judge Gary L. Johnson’s recusal from the case, was correct in determining it was Hylton’s, - not Spinks' - duty to inform the circuit court he was a juvenile at the time he committed a break-in seven years ago.

Memorandum opinions are issued by the Court in cases that would not be significantly aided by oral arguments and present no new or significant questions of law.

According to court records, Jeffrey broke into the Gilboa Church of God on June 30, 2005, and stole musical equipment valued at $2,820. At the time, he was six days shy of his 18th birthday.

Two weeks later, Spinks arrested Hylton, and charged him with breaking and entering and grand larceny. After pleading guilty to the breaking and entering charge, Johnson sentenced him to 1-10 years in prison, but suspended it in lieu of successful completion of his GED and learning of a vocation trade at the Anthony Correctional Center in neighboring Greenbrier County.

According to court records, Hylton did not appeal his conviction or sentencing. He was released from ACC in 2007.

Sometime following his release, Hylton informed his probation officer he was a juvenile at the time he committed the break-in. On a date not specified, Johnson ordered Hylton’s criminal record expunged.

On April 24, 2008, Hylton, and Woods, his mother, filed suit against Spinks for, among other things, civil rights violations, and malicious prosecution. In their suit, the Hylton’s alleged Spinks’ failure to conduct a thorough investigation caused Jeffery to be prosecuted as an adult, rather than a juvenile.

Since they were Spinks’ employer, Bennett and the Commission were named as co-defendants in the suit.

On Oct. 18, 2011, Wilfong dismissed the suit, finding Spinks, Bennett and the Commission were immune from liability. In her ruling, Wilfong said the Hyltons failed to show how Spinks’ actions, or lack thereof, were “outside the scope of [his] employment or official responsibilities” or done with a “malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton or reckless manner.”

In its ruling, the Court agreed, and said Jeffrey had ample opportunity to make a case why he should’ve been tried as a juvenile, and not as an adult.

“Indeed,” the Court said, “there is no allegation in the complaint that Deputy Spinks even recognized the issue of Mr. Hylton’s age. There are absolutely no allegations that Deputy Spinks concealed Mr. Hylton’s age, took some action to ensure that Mr. Hyton [sic] was charged as an adult despite his age, or the similar.

“Indeed, Mr. Hylton — who was an adult at the time of arrest and prosecution and who had an attorney — apparently did not challenge his prosecution as an adult. Instead, he pled guilty and received the benefit of being treated as a youthful offender.

The Hyltons were represented by Kevin B. Burgess of the Fayetteville law firm of Hamilton, Burgess, Young and Pollard, while David J. Mincer of the Charleston law firm of Bailey and Wyant represented Bennett, Spinks and the Commission.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case number 12-0194

Nicholas Circuit Court, case number 08-C-70 (Hylton civil)

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