Deputy Sheriffs can be held responsible for helping landlords to take tenant's property during eviction
Rodney Cochran's landlords evicted him when he fell behind on rent. They secured an eviction notice when he owed one- and one-half months' rent and obtained the help of Sheriff's Deputies in executing the eviction. Although the eviction notice made no mention of Cochran's personal property, the Deputies not only helped to carry it out of the home, but they also took possession and may have "purchased" some of Cochran's things. When Cochran's family attempted to intervene, the Deputies protected the landlords' assumption of possession and deflected interference by the State Police. Ultimately, Cochran lost possession of all of his property, the Landlords declared bankruptcy, thus avoiding any remediation, and Cochran's property was scattered between the landlords and law enforcement. His television, for example, ended up at the Sheriff's office, entertaining Deputies. Cochran sued under 42 USC 1983, claiming the Deputies participated in a violation of his rights under the 4th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.The Sixth Circuit upheld Cochran's right to sue and rejected the Deputies' claim that they were immune from any liability. The Court noted that the eviction notice did not address Cochran's personal property and did not convert the right to possession from Cochran to the Landlords. A state statute that could have given the Landlords a lien on the property was not incorporated into the Court's order and did not convert possession of all of Cochran's worldly goods--nor would the lien have exceeded the value of the debt owed, which was only about $1500.00.
The Deputies also argued that they were relieved of responsibility for their error by the fact that during the eviction they called the County Attorney and confirmed that a landlord might obtain possession of an evicted tenant's property. The Court noted that it was settled law in the Sixth Circuit for many years that Deputies participating in an eviction who do not merely maintain the peace, but rather actually take part in illegal activity, do so at their own risk.