Three lawsuits tied to a 2018 law enforcement crackdown on CBD retailers in Tennessee will move forward after the Sixth Court of Appeals ruled against Rutherford County officials who sought to have the case thrown out, the Tennessean reports.
The defendants – Rutherford County Sheriff Mike Fitzhugh, Assistant District Attorney John Zimmerman, and District Attorney General Jennings Jones, the Town of Smyrna and its Police Chief Kevin Arnold – asked the courts to dismiss the civil suit related to the so-called “Operation Candy Crush” raids, arguing that their actions during the course of the operation did not rise to the level of constitutional right violations, the report says.
The plaintiffs – three business owners whose shops were targeted in the raid – contend that the defendants were motivated by conspiracy to violate the plaintiffs’ rights. In all, 17 business owners were arrested and had their store padlocked; ultimately, the charges were dropped and expunged, and the courts ruled CBD sales were legal in the state.
According to court documents outlined by the Tennessean, warrants for the search were based on Tennessee Bureau of Investigation lab reports that showed illegal substances in CBD candy products at the stores. TBI statements show the agency never made a ruling on whether those substances were illegal because their tests can only test for the presence of THC and not THC levels.
Jones and Zimmerman also reportedly pushed the issue outside of their jurisdiction. Jones went so far as to tell a county sheriff major that he would throw TBI “under the bus” for refusing to testify over the lab results.
Fitzhugh’s behavior during the raid was also under fire, specifically comments made during a press conference following the arrests that were found to be untrue. In the Circuit Court opinion, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons wrote that Fitzhugh’s false statements – that the business owners were spraying candy with illicit substances – “suggest he conducted himself in the investigation with a reckless disregard for the truth.”
Fitzhugh was also found to have offered justifications for the arrest despite receiving contradicting information in court.
Gibbons ruled that those actions disqualified officials from either absolute or qualified immunity from the lawsuit; however, Fitzhugh was ruled to have immunity against the charge that the store owners’ equal protection rights were violated.
“The complaint offers very specific factual allegations that Jones and Zimmerman acted outside their role as judicial advocates during the investigative phase of Operation Candy Crush and were objectively unreasonable in pushing the operation forward without probable cause.” – Gibbons, in the opinion, via the Tennessean
The ruling allows the case to continue in the District Court, which had previously denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The complaint shows that 12 of the 17 stores targeted in the raids were owned by people of Egyptian descent and collectively they own 15 of the 19 shops.
The day after the arrests, Zimmerman reportedly told an attorney that represented one of the CBD brands sold at the stores that “all the people selling CBD in Rutherford County are ‘foreigners.’”