News

Texas Sues FDA over Seizure of Lethal Injection Drugs

Texas officials have filed a federal lawsuit to force the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make a decision whether it will return lethal injection drugs the agency confiscated nearly a year and a half ago. “There are only two reasons why the FDA would take 17 months to make a final decision on Texas’ importation of thiopental sodium: gross incompetence or willful obstruction,” state Attorney General Ken Paxton says in the suit. The Washington Post reports that the state had purchased 1,000 vials of sodium thiopental from a foreign distributor, but the drugs were seized by the FDA at the Houston airport in 2015. Texas authorities argue that the drugs do not violate any of the statutes enforced by the FDA.

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Obama Authors Law Review Article on Criminal Justice

President Barack Obama returned to his roots at the Harvard Law Review this week, penning an article about the progress his administration has made in reforming the criminal justice system as well as the challenges that remain. The article, “The President's Role in Advancing Criminal Justice Reform,” addresses how presidents can exert influence over the criminal justice system. With respect to specific policies, Obama argues the country cannot afford to spend $80 billion annually on incarceration, “write off” 70 million Americans with a criminal record, release 600,000 inmates each year without helping them integrate into society, or deny that the legacy of racism drives inequality in the justice system. The Daily Times has more from the Associated Press.

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State Sued over Driver’s License Law

A lawsuit filed in federal court this week alleges that the state’s driver’s license law violates constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, and unfairly deprives the poor of the right to drive because they cannot pay court fees. The suit, brought by the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, the Memphis-based reform group Just City and the Memphis office of Baker Donelson, argues that more than 146,000 Tennesseans have had their driver’s licenses revoked since 2012 for not paying court fines. State law provides for automatic revocation when court fines go unpaid for a year. The suit asks the Nashville-based court to reinstate the revoked licenses and waive reinstatement fees for those impacted, the Tennessean reports.

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Court Sets Oral Arguments for Knoxville Session

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear four cases in Knoxville on Jan. 10. The cases involve issues of whether a person who has been elected judge, but not yet assumed office, may act as a state officer or employee and whether a judicial administrative assistant is an at-will employee whose employment can be terminated by the judge; whether the Court of Criminal Appeals erred in finding that the evidence at trial was insufficient to support a conviction for aggravated stalking; whether the signature of a trustee agreeing to arbitration binds the minor beneficiary; and whether a trial court erred in affirming a BPR decision.

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$2M More Approved for Memphis Police Headquarters

The Memphis City Council approved another $2 million in capital funding for the renovation of a 13-story building that was once the Donnelley J. Hill State Office Building, the Memphis Daily News reports. The city bought the building for $1.5 million and planned to spend $6.2 million to renovate it for the Memphis Police Department’s new headquarters. The price tag is now approaching $8.4 million. The police department plans to occupy the top seven floors, with other city agencies moving into the rest of the building, which is located on Civic Center Plaza with City Hall.

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California Dems Hire Holder to Fight Trump Policies

Democratic leaders in the California legislature have hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to advise them on a legal strategy as they prepare for a fight against President-elect Donald Trump and a number of his policies. The group will pay Holder $25,000 a month plus expenses for three months to develop strategies “regarding potential actions of the federal government that may be of concern to the state of California.” Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have talked tough since Trump’s election, vowing to confront his campaign promises to repeal “Obamacare” and deport undocumented immigrants. WRCB-TV has the Associated Press story.

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No Probation for Drunk Drivers Who Kill

A new state law that took effect Jan. 1 mandates that drunk drivers who kill someone must get jail time, WRCB-TV reports. The law, championed by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, was supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which said it was important to take probation off the table as a possible sentence for a drunk driving vehicular homicide. Tom Kimball of the Tennessee District Attorney General Conference also praised the law, saying it is good news for victims’ families.

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2nd Suit Filed over Shelby County Jail Problems

A new lawsuit filed on Christmas Eve alleges that 10 plaintiffs were held at the Shelby County Jail for an “extended and unlawful” amount of time before their bonds were set, the Commercial Appeal reports. The class action suit claims the county’s handling of a major computer system transition was “an abject failure” and the cause of the delays. The suit is the second one filed relating to problems at the jail. The criminal justice reform group Just City filed the first suit in November.

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Roane County Drug Court Gets National Attention

A series produced by the Association of Independents in Radio and airing on National Public Radio is looking at stories that express the heart and soul of America. Among the features is one on the Roane County Recovery Court, which was formed to get drug addicts into treatment instead of jail. General Sessions Judge Dennis Humphrey works closely with the district attorney’s office to oversee the court, which involves “intensive supervision and treatment” in a county that is experiencing high rates of opiate addiction.

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Nashville Plans Behavioral Health Center for Jail

The Davidson County Sheriff’s Department has announced it will build a $10 million behavioral health center for arrestees with mental health issues as part of its new headquarters. The separate facility will be the first of its kind in the nation, WKRN reports. According to the sheriff’s department, about 30 percent of jail inmates suffer from some type of mental illness. Leaders believe it is time to find a new way to treat these individuals so that they get the help they need. The center is slated to open in late 2018.

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New Law Requires Mandatory Minimum Sentences

A new Tennessee state law means people who are convicted of three or more domestic violence crimes will be charged with a felony instead of a misdemeanor, and those found guilty of a third felony burglary or drug charge will face a mandatory minimum sentence. The law also sets the mandatory minimum period of time to be served to at least 85 percent of time sentenced. With the state prison system at 90 percent capacity, the law may pose challenges for some facilities. News Channel 9 looks at several, however, that claim they will not be affected.

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643 Children Identified as Severe Abuse Victims

A Tennessee committee charged with investigating and issuing recommendations on severe child abuse in the state says 643 children were victims of a second or subsequent incident of severe abuse during the 2014-2015 fiscal year. The Second Look Commission found that sexual abuse is the most prevalent type of abuse and that the “lack of consequences for failing to report child abuse continues to be an issue.” The report is based on data provided by the Department of Children’s Services. Fox 17 has more on the findings.

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Court Clarifies Evidence for Criminal Stalking Convictions

The Tennessee Supreme Court today clarified that the criminal offense of stalking contains both an objective element and a subjective element of significant mental suffering or distress that must be met to sustain a conviction. The court emphasized that the state must present evidence that a victim actually experienced significant mental suffering or distress. The ruling came in a case in which the court concluded that the evidence presented was insufficient to sustain the conviction.

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Memphis Sued for Untested Rape Kits

Rape victims are in fear they may never see justice because of the backlog of rape kits that remain untested, News 5 reports. But now there is a $10 million class-action lawsuit being brought against the city of Memphis and Shelby County for negligence. “We’re suing for the insult to the injury,” attorney Daniel Lofton said. He also said the suit calls for full transparency as to how the backlog occurred.

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Court Overturns Precedent on Ex Post Facto Protections

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that the state constitution’s prohibition against ex post facto laws provides no greater protection than that provided by the U.S. Constitution. The ruling came in a case testing whether application of the exclusionary rule to evidence seized prior to the law’s enactment violates constitutional bans on ex post facto laws. The court found that federal law prohibits retroactive application in four specific scenarios, none of which were involved in this case, and that nothing in the state constitution or history supports a conclusion that the state ex post facto clause is more expansive than its federal counterpart, overturning prior precedent.

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Reentry Center Seeks to Expand Beyond Shelby County

When the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Reentry (MSCOR) opened its doors last year, the mission was to equip Shelby County residents being released from prison with the tools they need to return home. But since the facility opened, many who could benefit are not taking part of the program, says County Mayor Mark Luttrell. To address that gap, the office is working with officials at other state prisons and the state parole board to help direct inmates into pre-release re-entry programs while incarcerated and eventually to MSCOR. The Commercial Appeal looks at plans for the program’s future.

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Law Firm Hackers Accessed Networks, Made Insider Trades

Federal prosecutors have charged three Chinese nationals with securities fraud, insider trading, computer intrusion and other offenses after they hacked into the networks of multiple international law firms with offices in New York City. According to the Associated Press, the three made more than $4 million in profits by buying stock in companies that were about to be acquired and then selling the shares after the acquisitions were announced. The firms affected were working on the deals but have not been identified. The Memphis Daily News has more on the story.

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Year-old Trousdale Facility Still Needs Work

The rollout of Tennessee’s newest private prison, the largest in the state, has not gone well, acknowledges CoreCivic CEO Damon Hininger. “We've got work to do,” Hininger told the Tennessean during an interview. In the year since it has opened, the Trousdale Turner Correctional Center has been marred by safety, security and staffing concerns, according to the paper. These issues “boiled over” in May when the state Department of Corrections advised the facility to stop accepting new inmates. Since then, problems have persisted with the facility going into “lock down” mode several times.

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Have You Heard About the TBA Mashup?

Interested in observing a legal hackathon or getting a hands-on demonstration of the new Fastcase 7 platform? Both will be part of the first TBA Mashup, a full-day of activities and free programming set for Feb. 17 at the Tennessee Bar Center in conjunction with the annual TBA Law Tech UnConference CLE program.

In addition to the hackathon and Fastcase 7 demo, the TBA Mashup will feature sessions on: 

  • Current State of Health Insurance for the Small Firms
  • Professional Liability Insurance - What to look for in YOUR Policy
  • A Demo of Fastcase TopForm, a powerful bankruptcy filing software
  • Retirement Planning Guidance from the ABA Retirement Funds
  • Pro Bono in Action: How to help with pro bono events and how to take part in online options

At the annual TBA Law Tech UnConference CLE program, you can take as many or as few hours as you need. Registration will be open all day. Payment will be determined at checkout based on the hours you need. Topics will include: 

  • Bill & Phil Tech Show
  • Ethical Considerations for Cyber Security in Law
  • Evolution of the Legal Marketplace
  • Making e-Discovery Affordable 
  • Drone Law
  • Encryption for Lawyers

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Family Center Aims to Improve Post-prison Life

The Tennessean profiles the Nashville Family Reconciliation Center, a non-profit that provides a variety of services to the formerly incarcerated and their families. The center offers support groups to help prevent recidivism, youth outreach programs to help the youngest offenders receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system, and free therapy to help ex-inmates heal from past traumas. The center is recruiting new volunteers and board members. To learn more visit the group's website or contact director Malinda Davenport-Crisp.

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Wrongful Arrest Prompts Calls for Investigation

For more than eight weeks last fall, Rachel Heffner was prohibited from returning home because she had been designated an “aggressor” and “defendant” in a domestic violence case. In fact, she was not the aggressor but the victim. But that was not acknowledged by prosecutors or the police until criminal charges against her were dismissed when her older son failed to appear in court. Now, police confirm charges against the teenager are pending. According to the Tennessean, Heffner’s lawyer is raising a host of issues such as why the two children were not separated before being interviewed by police and why they were allowed to remain home alone after their mother’s arrest. He also has asked the department to conduct a review as to why Heffner’s side of the story was never investigated.

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Obama Signs Bill to Review Civil Rights-Era Killings

Racially motivated, civil rights-era killings that are now cold cases will get a fresh look under legislation signed by President Barack Obama, PBS reports. The measure, signed last week, extends a 2007 law that calls for a full accounting of race-based deaths, many of which have been closed for decades. It also provides federal resources to help local jurisdictions look into the cases, extends the time frame of cases to be considered and requires the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI to consult with civil rights organizations, universities and others who had been gathering evidence on these deaths.

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Town of Mason to Begin Holding Court in Gallaway

The city of Gallaway has granted approval for the town of Mason to temporarily use its courthouse to hold municipal court beginning Jan. 17, the Covington Leader reports. Mason will pay Gallaway $100 per court session as well as $25 per hour for a Gallaway police officer to be present during court, with a minimum of $50 for the officer per session. The town will hold hearings on the third Tuesday of the month and will continue to use the Gallaway courthouse until another suitable facility is located. Court proceedings will be conducted by Judge Price Harris with attorney Kevin Reed serving as the city prosecutor and Lureatha Harris as the city court clerk.

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31 Complete Federal ‘Smart on Crime’ Program

The federal “Smart on Crime” initiative was announced in 2013 and implemented in East Tennessee by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chattanooga and the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Office in conjunction with local law enforcement, social service organizations and churches. The program focused on ways to make the district safer by providing federal ex-offenders with the resources necessary to successfully re-enter the community and reduce recidivism. U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr recently announced that 31 ex-offenders completed the program in 2016. “As a result, these ex-offenders are in a better positon to become productive members of our communities, making east Tennessee a safer and better place to live,” Harr told Chattanoogan.com. She also announced that a special emphasis will be placed on juvenile offenders in 2017.

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Court Amends Pro Se Divorce Forms

The Tennessee Supreme Court today issued an order revising pro se forms to be used in uncontested divorce cases with minor children. The court reports that its Access to Justice Commission requested the change to make it clear that spouses with orders of protection may use the forms. The documents released today replace the forms published by the court in October. The forms can be used beginning Jan. 1.

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