The U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of an imprisoned former Murray County, Ga., judge.
Bryant Cochran, the county's former magistrate, was sentenced to five years in federal prison in 2015 after a jury convicted him of helping plant methamphetamine on a woman's car. Before the alleged conspiracy, the victim had publicly accused Cochran of trying to sleep with her when she visited him in his office.
On March 17, justices with the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled the jury should not have convicted Cochran on one of the six counts against him, based on the evidence provided to them in court.
But the ruling does not impact Cochran's prison sentence. The bulk of the punishment is tied to his conviction for conspiring to plant drugs against the woman, Angela Garmley. The justices upheld that part of the case.
› Conspiracy against the rights of Angela Garmley: Five years
› Deprivation of rights of a former employee: One year
› Deprivation of rights of a former employee: One year (vacated)
› Depriving of rights of Garmley: One year
› Conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine: Five years
› Tampering with a witness: Five years
"I was pleased that all of the Angie Garmley counts held," said her attorney, McCracken Poston. "It was pretty egregious."
As prosecutors told the story in court during the trial, Garmley visited Cochran in April 2012, asking him to issue arrest warrants against her neighbors, who allegedly beat her up. She later publicly accused Cochran of propositioning her for sex when she visited. Cochran, in turn, asked local law enforcement officers to arrest Garmley, saying she would have drugs on her car, according to officers' testimonies during the December 2014 trial.
A deputy finally did pull her over. And after a long search, and a captain's call to Cochran, they found methamphetamine in a metallic box under her car. A district attorney asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to look into the arrest, believing the details were suspect.
Last week, the justices ruled that prosecutors presented "overwhelming evidence" that Cochran orchestrated a conspiracy against Garmley. But, they added, he should not have been convicted of another charge, in which prosecutors said he violated the civil rights of one of his employees.
A couple of court employees testified that Cochran went through his secretary's cellphone without her permission. Prosecutors said this constituted an unconstitutional search and seizure, violating the employee's Fourth Amendment rights.
But last month, the court ruled that past cases do not show when a boss looking through a government employee's personal cellphone is a Fourth Amendment violation — especially considering the employee used the phone for work. It's unclear whether an employee's expectation of privacy is more important than the government's interest in what is on that employee's phone.
"No decision of the Supreme Court, this Court, or the highest court of Georgia has further clarified the standards by which intrusions into privacy expectations of governmental employees at work must be judged," last month's ruling reads.
Cochran received a one-year sentence on that part of the case. But for practical purposes, that sentence is running at the same time as his five-year punishment for violating Garmley's rights.
Cochran is living at Ashland, Ky., Federal Correctional Institute and is scheduled for a December 2019 release.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.