Federal Court Dismisses Civil Rights Allegations Against HCSO
LEGAL UPDATE: Federal Court Dismisses Civil Rights Allegations Against Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office
Hamilton County, TN – Beginning in July of 2019, ten federal lawsuits were filed against the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office alleging allegations of misconduct of then Patrol Deputy Daniel Wilkey, collectively seeking approximately 400 million dollars in damages. The lawsuits claimed that former Deputy Wilkey’s misconduct violated the civil rights of individuals involved in five specific incidents. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued in the lawsuits that the actions of former Deputy Wilkey demonstrated a pattern, custom, or practice of [the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office] allowing its employees to violate the constitutional rights of citizens.” Deputy Wilkey resigned from the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office in December of 2019.
Four of the ten lawsuits were previously dismissed as to the County and all other Defendants, including Wilkey. Yesterday, in an opinion issued by Judge Travis McDonough of the United States District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee, the (6) remaining civil rights claims against Hamilton County [Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office] were dismissed.
One of the lawsuits, filed in October of 2019, pertained to an incident that occurred in February of 2019 when former Deputy Daniel Wilkey, acting outside his official capacity and training, baptized Shandle Riley after a traffic stop. This incident garnered national media attention and began a series of allegations against the now former deputy.
Another issue that garnered national media attention was the alleged destruction of video and data evidence that occurred as a result of the catastrophic data loss that occurred soon after the initiation of these lawsuit. The plaintiffs made unsubstantiated allegations that the data loss was deliberate. Extensive work by the Sheriff’s Office, Hamilton County Attorney’s Office, and outside counsel, demonstrated that not only was there no data loss involving these particular cases, but that the video evidence was fully preserved, authenticated and uncompromised.
Since the filing of these suits, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has sustained criticism by numerous individuals, attorneys, and community organizations alleging Wilkey’s actions demonstrated that the Sheriff’s Office tolerated deputy misconduct, effectively fostering a culture where deputies were allowed to violate citizens’ constitutional rights.
In its opinion of March 29, 2023, White vs. Hamilton County, et al, the Court opined “Thus, Plaintiffs have not pointed to sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could find the County operated pursuant to an ingrained practice of tolerating constitutional violations that served as the moving force of their injuries.” The opinion further states, “Accordingly, all 1983 [civil rights] claims brought against the county by Riley, Mitchell, Menifee, Knox, Johnson, and Jarnigan are hereby dismissed.”
“Since these lawsuits were initially filed, the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office has continued to maintain that allegations and claims, such as those alleged in these cases, should be adjudicated in the courts, allowing participants to the suit to present evidence in support of their claims or defenses, and not in the media, where pressure can be improperly exerted upon the litigants. Yesterday’s opinion reinforces what we as an agency have long held - the men and women of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office are dedicated to providing the highest level of law enforcement services available to the citizens of Hamilton County, which includes safeguarding their wellbeing and most importantly, their constitutional rights,” stated Sheriff Austin Garrett.
“The Hamilton County Attorney’s Office investigated both the data failure and the civil rights allegations levied in this lawsuit against the County. Throughout this litigation, the County has maintained that its practices, customs, and policies exceeded what is required of the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. The ruling of the federal judge yesterday confirms the contentions of former Sheriff Jim Hammond, current Sheriff Austin Garrett, and County officials,” stated R. Dee Hobbs, Hamilton County Attorney’s Office.
A copy of the Federal Court’s Opinion in White vs. Hamilton County, et al, is attached.
1. Opinion US District Court, Eastern District of TN at Chattanooga (BAILEY WHITE, real party of interest and administrator of the estate of SHANDLE MARIE RILEY, et al, v. HAMILTON COUNTY GOVERNMENT) Page 2.
2 The civil rights claims against the individual deputies remain, as does a state law claim against Hamilton County, which could require it to pay for the wrongdoings of any deputies up to $100,000 per case.