Erica Masters suing Columbia County, code officer who entered her home

A woman has filed a lawsuit against Columbia County and the former Code Compliance officer who admitted entering her Martinez home without permission.

Erica Masters, who now lives in the Atlanta area, filed the civil suit Tuesday afternoon in Columbia County State Court seeking $300,000 plus court costs for physical and emotional distress she suffered when Jimmy Vowell entered her unlocked home July 2.

Masters is seeking a jury trial.

“It is unfortunate that the county, who has no culpability or liability in my opinion, gets hit from two sides and the taxpayers have to defend both,” said Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson in response to the suit’s filing.

Vowell, who was fired shortly after the incident, was at Masters’ home to deliver a violation notice from a neighbor’s complaint that her yard was unkempt and overgrown. He claimed at the time that he entered the home only after knocking repeatedly and calling out, and that he smelled something from inside when the unlocked door swung open.

Masters’ home had a surveillance system, and a video of the incident showed Vowell walking through the home and standing in her bedroom doorway. She said she awakened to find Vowell talking to her from the hall, and that he retreated to her living room and waited there while she dressed.

After Vowell delivered the county ordinance violation notice, he left the home and Masters tried to call Vowell’s supervisor with Code Compliance but was unable to reach anyone. She then called 911 and, when she told the dispatcher she was uncertain whether she needed Vowell’s supervisor or a deputy, the dispatcher took her information for Code Enforcement to contact her.

Johnson suspended Vowell and then contacted the sheriff’s office. An investigator interviewed Masters and Vowell and reviewed the surveillance footage. Vowell was not charged because, officials said, there was no criminal intent in his entry of the home.

However, because the entry was a violation of department policy, Vowell was fired.

Vowell since has appealed his termination to the county’s Civil Service board, which determined the firing was “too excessive.” He is appealing to county commissioners for reinstatement, Johnson said.

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TRANSCRIPT OF ERICA MASTERS’ 911 CALL

Dispatcher: “Columbia County 911, what is your emergency?”

Masters: “First I had a question, but most likely I’m going to have to get a report made for this. Do the county code enforcement officers have the same right as a law enforcement officer to enter a property if they think someone’s safety is at risk?”

Dispatcher: “I’m not exactly sure, I believe so, I’m not sure. What exactly is going on?”

Masters: “I just had one of the county code enforcement officers show up at my house, basically to tell me that my grass is too high, which I know, because my lawnmower is broken.”

Dispatcher: “Mm-hmm.”

Masters: “Apparently he knocked on my door. He says that the door opened itself.”

Dispatcher: “Mm-hmm.”

Masters: “But I’ve got him on camera, and it looks more like he actually, like, tried the door handle and found that it was unlocked, and then he actually walked completely into my house, into my bedroom…”

Dispatcher: “Oh, OK.”

Masters: “…and actually wakes me up, just to tell me that I need to sign this notice telling me my grass is too high.”

Dispatcher: “OK. Hold on one moment; let me transfer you to a non-emergency line, OK?”

After a few technical difficulties transferring the call, the conversation resumes:

Dispatcher: “So, did you actually want to speak to someone over code enforcement to see? Or did you actually just want a deputy to come out there so you can do a report?”

Masters: “Um…”

Dispatcher: “It probably could be handled through their office. I’m not sure how you want to do it, go ahead.”

Masters: “I tried to call someone with code enforcement, like the manager’s office or whatever, and he’s not answering right now.”

Dispatcher requests Masters’ contact information. Then:

Dispatcher: “What I’ll do is I’ll see who I can get in contact with, and have someone call you back.”

Masters: “OK. Thank you.”

Dispatcher: “Bye.”

Editorial: Home of the Masters

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