James Brunson Fought The Law And Won
December 22, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Usually the phrase, “I fought the law and the law won,” is a truism in the justice system. There are, however, rare moments where the little guy fights the law and wins, despite enormous obstacles. James Brunson, a liquor store owner in Bridgeport, Illinois, is counting his blessings this holiday season after the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowed his suit against a power hungry town mayor to go forward. Brunson’s tale of an abusive mayor, a corrupt police chief, and a bad arrest is one that needs a day in court.
James Brunson opened his liquor store in 2008, obtaining a Class B liquor license in the process. His store was one of five places in Bridgeport, Illinois a person could buy booze. Two of those places were the Red Hills Veterans Club and a restaurant called “The Place To Be.” That detail is important because neither of those establishments got as many visits for liquor law violations as Brunson’s from Police Chief Scott Murray.
Chief Murray would often tell Brunson of specific liquor law violations Brunson committed. Brunson, wanting to remain in full compliance with the law, would look up these laws. To Brunson’s dismay, none of the alleged laws existed. When Chief Murray informed Brunson on a visit only Bridgeport residents could own Bridgeport business serving liquor, Brunson had enough and called the local liquor commissioner, Max Schauf, to confirm this regulation’s existence. Schauf, who coincidentally served as town mayor, answered in the affirmative. Mayor Schauf was lying.
Evidence suggests Schauf may have lied to put Brunson out of business. Mayor Schauf lost a bid to buy the liquor store to Brunson. Schauf also had business interests in the Red Hills Veterans Club and “The Place to Be,” which was owned by his son Mark. The continued “visits” from law enforcement and references to nonexistent liquor regulations were simply business tools to keep money in Mayor Schauf’s pockets and away from James Brunson.
Two years after Brunson Package opened, James Brunson applied for a renewal of his liquor license. According to the Seventh Circuit, if a business has no violations, the licensee is entitled to a pro forma* license renewal. Brunson, however, got an inspection from Chief Murray. Since Brunson applied for the renewal several weeks before deadline, he wanted to know if the inspection meant trouble was on the horizon. Chief Murray advised Brunson to hire counsel.
The day Brunson’s license was set to expire, he called Mayor Schauf to ask about the status of his application. Mayor Schauf told him the license would not be renewed in time and he didn’t know when he would make a decision. It took intervention from the Illinois Liquor Control Commission and a visit from Special Agent Randal Mendenhall to get an order allowing Brunson’s Package to reopen pending a hearing.
Once Brunson’s Package re-opened, Chief Murray popped in to ask, “What makes you think you can reopen your store when we say you can’t?” Brunson’s supplier also mysteriously got a call from the city clerk saying they could no longer sell to Brunson. Once James produced the Illinois Commission’s order, the visits from Chief Murray stopped and Brunson’s seller continued doing business. Mayor Schauf avoided the hearing by quietly renewing Brunson’s liquor license and backdating it to appear as if nothing ever happened.
James Brunson’s Bridgeport woes didn’t end there. In July of 2010 he found someone attempted to break into his store by removing the back door from the hinges. Chief Murray investigated and brushed the attempt off as the work of teenagers. The next weekend, someone vandalized the store’s compressor. When Chief Murray dismissed this incident, Brunson decided to take matters into his own hands.
Armed with a gun, Brunson stood guard over his store the following weekend. Around 3 a.m. on August 7, 2010, Brunson noticed a car crawling “back and forth past his store.” The car stopped, a man emerged, and Brunson heard the store’s front windows shatter. When Brunson went to investigate, he found Jody Harshman, a Schauf family friend and “off-and-on” employee of Mayor Schauf’s businesses, raising a hammer and coming in his direction. The two tussled until Brunson managed to secure Harshman and police arrived. Chief Murray took over the investigation, and two weeks later James Brunson was charged with felony aggravated battery.
Brunson filed a Section 1983 suit against Mayor Schauf, Chief Murray, State’s Attorney Lisa Wade, Jody Harshman, the City of Bridgeport, and Lawrence County, Illinois. All the defendants moved for summary judgment, and the case made its way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. If you’ve stuck with this story so far, you’re probably wondering what went through the court’s head when they put eyeballs on this case.
The Seventh Circuit granted State’s Attorney Lisa Wade prosecutorial immunity because her involvement stuck within the bounds of core prosecutorial functions. Chief Murray got a pass for arresting Brunson because he was acting on a facially valid warrant issued by a state court. Mayor Schauf wasn’t going to walk away from this case that easily.
After getting the prosecutor and the police chief out of the way, the court turned its gaze to Brunson’s Equal Protection and Due Process claims against Mayor Schauf. The court recognized Brunson as a “class of one” with regards to his equal protection claims, despite a split in the circuit on tests to determine whether one person was unfairly being singled out by government officials. The amount of evidence Brunson offered was sufficient to the court to show “an “orchestrated campaign of official harassment motivated by sheer malice”” supporting an equal protection claim. Brunson’s equal protection claim goes forward.
Mayor Schauf claimed “absolute immunity” for his actions with Brunson’s liquor license. The Seventh Circuit wasn’t buying it. After a review of the Illinois Liquor Control Act’s procedural safeguards when a license is suspended or revoked, the court said license renewal didn’t have comparable safeguards. Mayor Schauf’s decision to sit on James Brunson’s license renewal was comparable to a revocation or suspension, so Brunson didn’t receive adequate notice, an ability to be heard, or any means of appeal other than going to the commission.
Finally, the court held “absolute immunity” applied to actions comparable to those of a judicial officer. A person with the power to dispense liquor licenses didn’t fit that criteria.** James Brunson’s due process claim against Mayor Schauf survived, and would return to the courts.
This fight isn’t over, but it’s nice to see a win, even if not as much of a win as it should be, for the little guy in the face of overwhelming governmental opposition. James Brunson and Mayor Schauf will return to duke the rest of this case out in the district courts. Here’s to the rare cases like James Brunson. It’s a good day when a guy like that fights the law and wins.
*Latin for “a matter of form.”
**In one of the footnotes, the Seventh Circuit noted that because this overruled previous decisions concerning liquor commissioners, a copy of the opinion would be circulated to every court in the Circuit. Seriously, read this opinion if you can. It’s like a movie script waiting for a green light.