A Hancock County Justice Court judge is one of nearly a dozen public officials in two coastal counties who were recently named in a federal lawsuit which claims each played a crucial role in violating a Gulf Coast businessman's civil rights.
The suit, filed in Gulfport, alleges corruption, collusion, and conspiracy among city, county and court officials in both Hancock and Harrison counties, as well as ethics violations by the prosecution and unauthorized practice of law.
In the suit, Hancock County Justice Court Judge James Lagasse is accused of denying Bruce Wooten, owner of Bruce's A.C., his right to a jury trial during a criminal proceeding brought by his ex-wife, Faith Peterson who works as a paralegal/court administrator for the city of Gulfport Prosecutor's Office.
According to MS state law, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial in justice court if the period of incarceration is more than six months in jail.
The suit also claims Lagasse worked with Gulfport City Prosecutor Herman Cox to keep Wooten behind bars pending trial by raising bond fees.
The suit says Wooten's ex-wife Faith not only works as a court official but is also the niece of Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson.
According to the suit, Wooten and Faith have a child together. The two have had a bitter custody battle which is ongoing before Chancery Court in Harrison County.
In the suit, Wooten alleges Faith began to engage in affairs with prosecutors and other law enforcement during her employment. Faith is accused of using those romantic relationships, the suit says, along with other personal relationships formed, to gain favors to help aid in her legal struggles.
“Defendant, Faith E. Peterson, utilized her relationships with law enforcement to have Plaintiff arrested,” the suit says. “Plaintiff was arrested and charged with felony child abuse in addition to having a no contact order issued against him in the Gulfport Municipal Court system.”
The suit alleges Faith continued to abuse her power and position by gaining other favors intended to further harass and annoy Wooten and to subject him to unreasonable and unlawful arrest.
Former Gulfport City Prosecutor Richard Smith and current Assistant Gulfport City Prosecutor Dustin Uselton are also parties to the case. The two are both accused of having romantic relationships with Faith which existed while the two helped prosecute Wooten's criminal case, “creating a clear conflict of interest,” the suit says.
The suit further alleges, Gulfport City Attorney Jeff Bruni had knowledge of the affairs but failed to do or say anything, allowing the Municipal Court Judge and City Prosecutor’s Office to further the case against Wooten. The case was only transferred to Justice Court, the suit says, after Wooten’s attorney provided photographic evidence of Faith’s personal relationships after hours with both attorneys.
Faith is also accused of using municipal computers while at work to search for outstanding violations to further prosecution against Wooten. Later, the suit says, two new computers were ordered for the prosecutor's office and those utilized by Faith were said to have been destroyed.
Sheriff Peterson is accused in the suit of attempting to use his position in an abuse of power. According to the suit, Peterson allegedly tried to influence the judge assigned to oversee the child custody case initiated by Faith against Wooten.
In a letter addressed to Peterson from Chancery Court Judge Carter Bice on Jan. 8, 2019, it says, “Judges are forbidden from engaging in ex parte, or in private communications, with parties or potential witnesses regarding a pending or impending proceeding.” It goes on to say,”These rules are designed to keep legal proceedings fair and neutral.......” Bice further explains, “These rules prohibited me from discussing the merits of your niece’s case with you.”
Peterson is also being accused, along with Gulfport Police Chief Leonard Papania, of allowing Wooten to be harassed and intimidated by officers during his time in custody.
Other allegations vaguely outlined in the suit include Wooten’s criminal child abuse case being scheduled without notice and Wooten being denied due process rights on numerous charges which, the suit says, were maliciously filed against him.
In total, 10 city and county public officials and/or officers of the court are named in the lawsuit in both their individual and official capacities.
Lagasse and Cox have both filed a motion asking they be removed from the lawsuit. The complaints say the allegations against the two are “boilerplate, conclusory, and vague.” Lagasse is asking for judicial immunity.
No other responses were filed by press time Tuesday.
Wooten is asking for relief to be granted for compensatory and punitive damages in an amount to be determined by a jury.
A lawsuit tells only one side in a legal dispute.