News

Black Caucus to Hold Criminal Justice Forum

The Tennessee legislature’s Black Caucus will hold a public forum in Memphis on July 10 to discuss criminal justice reform issues. The event will run from 3 to 6 p.m. at First Baptist Church-Broad. According to the Commercial Appeal, the caucus won legislative approval this year for several bills aimed at reforming criminal justice laws, including one making it easier to have a criminal record expunged in cases of mistaken identity and another preventing the state from asking a job applicant about a criminal history early in the interview process. 

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Court Abortion Decision Could Affect Tennessee Law

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its three final opinions for this term this morning. Among the rulings, the court found that Texas laws requiring abortion centers to meet surgical center standards and abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges constitute an undue burden on abortion access and therefore violate the constitution. The court also ruled that a domestic-violence conviction is a misdemeanor crime of violence for purposes of limiting access to firearms. The final decision vacated the corruption conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell. SCOTUSblog has more on the decisions, while the Tennessean looks at the abortion ruling’s impact on similar laws in Tennessee, which are currently being challenged. The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee had agreed to stay the proceedings until the high court ruled.

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Tennessee Supreme Court Calls for New Trial in Assault Case

The Tennessee Supreme Court today ruled that a man convicted in Memphis of aggravated assault is entitled to a new trial because the prosecution did not properly elect an offense for the jury to consider. Michael Smith was charged with one instance of aggravated assault involving his one-time girlfriend. The Supreme Court determined that the jury heard evidence of more than one instance that could establish guilt for aggravated assault, but the law requires the prosecution to elect only one such instance upon which the jury would deliberate. Read the full opinion.

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Ruling Clarifies When Enhanced Federal Sentences Can Be Applied

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday clarified the criteria for using state law convictions to impose enhanced federal sentences, ruling that a prior crime can be used "only if its elements are the same as, or narrower than, those of the generic offense." In a 5-3 opinion authored by Justice Kagan, the court reversed a lower court decision in Mathis v. United States. That decision had allowed inclusion of a burglary conviction under Iowa law to trigger Armed Career Criminal Act sentence enhancements. The majority opinion found the Iowa statute covered a broader range of conduct than that covered by generic burglary and set out alternative ways of satisfying the locational elements of the crime, according to a report in Jurist.

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Court Finds Warrantless Blood Draws in DUI Arrests Unconstitutional

States may not prosecute suspected drunken drivers for refusing warrantless blood draws when they are arrested, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today in a 7-1 opinion that found such tests violate the Fourth Amendment, the ABA Journal reports. The court did find, however, that states may require a warrantless breath test because such tests are less intrusive. The ruling affects laws in Tennessee and 10 other states where drivers who refuse blood tests can face penalties beyond having their licenses revoked, NewsChannel 9 reports.

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Progress Continues on Bedford Jail, Justice Center

Bedford County’s plans to build a new jail and justice center are moving ahead on schedule, officials meeting Wednesday said. The county has received several responses for its request for quotes from landowners at preferred sites and will now begin meeting with its architect to review the sites, the Shelbyville Times-Gazette reports. The county has received recertification of the existing jail, but that approval is contingent continued progress towards construction of a new jail.

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Deadlocked High Court Halts Obama Immigration Orders

The Supreme Court today issued rulings on several pressing issues including affirmative action, discrimination and immigration. The court’s 4-4 ruling on President Obama’s executive actions on immigration means that a lower court ruling blocking the programs will remain in effect. In Tennessee, immigrant advocates expressed outrage. “This is a devastating loss, not only for affected families but for our entire state,” Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Co-Executive Director Stephanie Teatro told The Tennessean. Attorney General Herbert Slatery, however, hailed the decision, saying "this lawsuit is not about immigration. It is about the rule of law, presidential power, and the structural limits of the U.S. Constitution." The Supreme Court also upheld the University of Texas's practice of using applicants’ race as a factor in admissions. The 4-3 ruling greenlights the limited use of affirmative action policies by schools, CNN reports. The court also ruled 7-1 in favor of a Georgia death row inmate’s discrimination claim. The ruling found, in part, that prosecutors made a “concerted effort to keep black prospective jurors off the jury.”

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City Will Stop Jailing for Unpaid Fines

A federal class action lawsuit against Jackson, Mississippi, has been settled, ending a system of jailing people because they could not pay court fines. The suit was filed by the nonprofit civil rights group Equal Justice Under Law and the University of Mississippi School of Law on behalf of seven plaintiffs who were jailed due to inability to pay fines and fees imposed in misdemeanor cases. Under the settlement, defendants can pay their fines at a rate of $25 per month or perform community service and get a credit toward their debt at a rate of $9 per hour. News Channel 5 has the story.

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Court Still to Rule on Most Controversial Cases

The U.S. Supreme Court issued five decisions Monday, including rulings (1) upholding a patent review procedure known as inter partes review, which has been used by Apple and Google to invalidate patents; (2) directing lower courts in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi to re-examine three convictions for evidence of racial prejudice in jury selection; and (3) directing the U.S. Labor Department to do a better job of explaining why it is changing a longstanding policy on whether certain workers deserve overtime pay. With just one week left in the court’s current term, however, the most contentious cases still need to be resolved, including regulation of Texas abortion clinics, the use of race in college admissions, the legality of the president’s immigration executive orders, and the public corruption conviction of Virginia’s former governor. WKRN looks at the remaining cases.

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Prosecutors Drop FedEx Prescription Drug Case

Criminal charges alleging FedEx knowingly delivered illegal prescription drugs to dealers and addicts were dropped suddenly last week after prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges. FedEx was indicted in 2014 and the trial began last Monday. In court on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer said FedEx was “factually innocent” and had repeatedly attempted to identify the customer in question but the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was unwilling or unable to provide the information. The Times Free Press has more.

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Alexander, Corker Vote Party Line on Gun Bills

In successive votes yesterday, a divided U.S. Senate defeated four gun control measures, two proposed by Democrats and two put forward by Republicans. The votes fell mostly along party lines. Tennessee’s two Republican senators were no exception, the Nashville Post reports. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker both voted against a measure from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., to expand background checks as well as a measure from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to block gun sales to those on a federal watch list. But they both voted for a plan by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to deny gun sales to those on the watch list if a prosecutor shows probable cause within three days, and another proposal by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that would have increased funding for background checks.

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Judge Slone Receives Public Health Award

Fourth Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Duane Slone recently received the Tennessee Public Health Association’s Visionary Award, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts. Tennessee Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehener presented the award to Slone for his work co-founding the district’s drug court, raising awareness about Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome — which affects children born to mothers using opiates during pregnancy — working against legislation that would have imprisoned addicted mothers and establishing transitional housing for pregnant mothers.

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Vandenburg Found Guilty on All Counts

The jury in the retrial of Brandon Vandenburg late Saturday found the former Vanderbilt football player guilty on all eight counts, including charges of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery and unlawful photography. The jury of seven women and five men deliberated four and one half hours before delivering their decision. The verdict ends a three-year ordeal for the victim, who testified in three trials, including the retrial of Vandenburg. The Tennessean has more on the story.

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Searches Allowed Based on Outstanding Warrants

The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled 5-3 that police can seize evidence from what would otherwise be an unconstitutional search if they first discover that the suspect has one or more outstanding arrest warrants. Opponents of the decision cited the fact that, in some cities, thousands of people have arrest warrants pending against them, mostly for traffic violations as insignificant as unpaid parking tickets. In a strongly-worded dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.” The Commercial Appeal has the story.

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Court Declines to Hear Challenge to Assault Weapon Bans

The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear a case challenging gun control laws enacted in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The decision, handed down with no additional explanation as to the court’s reasoning, allows assault weapons bans to stand in New York and Connecticut. Gun rights groups had challenged laws in those states banning certain semi-automatic weapons and restrictions on bullet magazines. The Commercial Appeal has more.

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Montgomery Takes Reins of Judicial Conference

Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Robert Montgomery of Kingsport was installed last week as the 64th president of the Tennessee Judicial Conference during the group's annual meeting in Nashville. He succeeds Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Jeff Bivins. Others taking office at the meeting included Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft of Memphis, who was named president-elect, and Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tim Easter of Williamson County, who was named moving vice president.

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Report: 1 in 30 Tennessee Adult Black Males Incarcerated

One in 30 adult black males in Tennessee are incarcerated, only slightly below the average of 1 in 26 for all states, according to new data from The Sentencing Project. The report evaluated the issue on a national scale and found “African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least 10 times the rate in five states." Read more from Nashville Scene

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Vandenburg's Retrial Underway

The retrial of former Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vandenburg began this morning in Nashville. The Tennessean reports that Deputy District Attorney General Tom Thurman today indicated that the state will use Vandenburg's statement to police for the first time. It includes Vandenburg admitting to having sex with the woman the next day and attempting to conceal evidence.

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Men Plead Not Guilty in Connection With Ooltewah Rape Case

Attorneys for Gatlinburg police Detective Rodney Burns and Ooltewah High School head basketball coach Andre "Tank" Montgomery today entered not guilty pleas for the men charged in connection with the rape of an Ooltewah freshman. Burns faces charges of aggravated perjury for his testimony in the case; Montgomery was charged for failing to report child sexual abuse. Read more from the Knoxville News Sentinel

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Jury Selected in Vandenburg Retrial

The Tennessean reports the 14 jurors who will hear the retrial of Brandon Vandenburg, the former Vanderbilt football player accused of rape, were chosen last night in Memphis. The jury, picked from Shelby County residents, contains nine women and five men. The chosen jurors will be bused to Nashville on Sunday and sequestered. 

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Jury Selection Continues in Vandenburg Retrial

Jury selection is expected to wrap up today in the retrial of former Vanderbilt football player Brandon Vandenburg, The Tennessean reports. More than 160 Shelby County residents were called as potential jurors, and of those dismissed, many felt serving on an out-of-town jury was a hardship.   

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Inmates Have the Right to File Suits, Attorney Argues

A case argued last week before the Tennessee Supreme Court challenged a state law that bars inmates who have past-due court fees from filing new cases. David Veile of the firm Schell & Davies argued the case on behalf of Reginald D. Hughes, an inmate whose appeal of a parole denial was dismissed because he owed hundreds of dollars in fees. Veile added Hughes “was denied access to justice because of two reasons: He is indigent and he is incarcerated.” Assistant Attorney General Michael Polovich argued that the law is in place to keep inmates from filing “frivolous lawsuits,” The Tennessean reports.  

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Judge Denies Raw Data Request in Vandenburg Retrial

Judge Monte Watkins today denied a request by Brandon Vandeburg’s defense team that asked the state to give them all of the digital media collected during the 2013 rape. Attorneys for Vandenburg, a former Vanderbilt football player, said they wanted their forensic expert to argue against what detectives found. Watkins has yet to rule on the defense team’s additional request to call an expert witness in case Vandenburg's sobriety comes into question, WSMV reports. Jury selection in Vandenburg's retrial is scheduled to begin this week in Memphis.

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Report: Tennessee's Expungement Fee Costly

Tennessee has one of the highest criminal record expungement fees in the country at $450. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization, takes a look at how the cost is impacting residents wishing to clear their name, and details the battle in the state legislature as lawmakers debate lowering the fee.

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FBI Offers New Guidance for Forensic Experts

The Justice Department today issued draft guidance for forensic experts at the FBI and other of its component agencies, WRCB-TV reports. The new guidelines follow reports last year that experts had overstated the strength of evidence involving microscopic hair analysis in cases dating back decades. The guide clarifies what forensic experts can and cannot say while testifying at trial or preparing scientific reports.

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