News

Judge Defends Court's Collection of Fines

Circuit Court Judge Clayburn Peeples countered claims that his court is not assessing and collecting fines designated to fund the 28th Judicial District Drug Task Force, telling the Jackson Sun that “Everybody who can be fined is fined. The law requires in some cases that fines be waived. I don’t write the law, I simply apply it. I am totally flabbergasted by [these] accusations.” The retired head of the task force has said that the interagency group may not exist next year because it is not receiving enough fee revenue from the court.

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Shelby Judicial Officials Reflect on Sentencing Changes

In a video interview with the Memphis Daily News, Shelby County’s Public Defender Stephen Bush and County Corrections Division Director James Coleman say county courts and prisons are improving, but more intervention should take place before citizens come into contact with the justice system. “The prison system is probably the worst place to engage people … struggling with other life issues,” Bush said. The program is the second in a series of interviews reflecting on changes in federal prosecution guidelines announced last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. The first installment featured District Attorney General Amy Weirich and U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton. Watch that interview here.

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Retired Agent: Uncollected Fines Hurting Drug Task Force

The West Tennessee Drug Task Force may be forced to close next year because fines designated to fund the task force are not being assessed or collected, the task force's former head says. Donny Blackwell, who retired as special agent in charge of the task force on Aug. 31, told the Jackson Sun that 28th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Clayburn Peebles has declared drug offenders indigent and waived the fines that would fund the task force. Blackwell said other fees that cover court costs are rarely waived. “I have not seen many drug dealers over the years that had a legitimate job,” Blackwell said. “On paper they are indigent because they do not have a legitimate job. But I have seen these same indigent drug offenders make multiple bonds for thousands of dollars to get out of jail and then hire and pay a private attorney thousands of dollars to represent them.”

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Criminal Court Judge Joins Nashville School of Law Faculty

Criminal Court Judge Mark Fishburn has joined the faculty at the Nashville School of Law and will teach his first group of fourth-year students in February. Fishburn, a 1979 graduate of the school, has been a criminal court judge since 2003. Before that, he served as a general sessions judge for three years and worked in private practice for 18 years. The Nashville Post has the story.

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DOJ Tackles Quality of Defense for Poor

In an unprecedented court filing, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) intervened in a case about the quality of indigent defense in Burlington and Mount Vernon, Washington. According to National Public Radio, plaintiffs in the suit against the two cities claim only two part-time lawyers were handling 2,000 misdemeanor cases. Should a judge find the city governments guilty of systematically depriving people of their Sixth Amendment right to legal counsel, the DOJ urged that an independent monitor be appointed to oversee public defender workloads.

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Article: More Human Trafficking in State than Gang Activity

In this alarming story about modern-day slavery, Memphis lawyer Ryan Dalton looks at the extent of human trafficking in our own state. A recent study says that 78 out of Tennessee's 95 counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking in the previous 24 months, and it is suspected that nearly all counties had trafficking activity, but law enforcement and social services are not adequately trained to identify and report it. Shelby, Davidson, Coffee and Knox counties are some of the worst offenders, Dalton writes, reporting more than 100 cases of minor sex trafficking and more than 100 cases of adult sex trafficking during the two-year study window. By comparison, the report indicates there is more human trafficking activity in Tennessee than gang activity. Read how lawyers have joined the fight in the new Tennessee Bar Journal.

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TBA Urges Full Funding for Federal Judiciary

The TBA today urged the Tennessee congressional delegation to back full funding for the federal judiciary when appropriations measures are taken up this fall. In letters authored by TBA President Cindy Wyrick and sent to each individual member of the delegation, the association points out that the effect of continued funding cuts at the “sequester” level will include slower processing of civil and bankruptcy cases, and diminished attention to constitutionally mandated representation of the criminally accused.

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Court Strikes Down Body Cavity Search

A federal appeals court has struck down an invasive body cavity search that was central to the conviction of a drug suspect in Anderson County, News Channel 5 reports. With two sheriff's deputies looking on, a doctor at Oak Ridge Methodist Medical Center probed Felix Booker's rectum to find a bag containing crack cocaine. Judges for the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati on Monday called the medically induced paralysis under which Felix Booker was searched a "shock to the conscience."

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Federal Judge Blasts DOJ Over Drug Sentence Disparity

In an Aug. 16 opinion, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett criticized the U.S. Department of Justice for creating massive drug sentencing disparities by not having a policy advising prosecutors on when to double the prison time for repeat offenders. The Iowa judge blasted the "deeply disturbing, yet often replayed, shocking, dirty little secret of federal sentencing: the stunningly arbitrary application" of sentencing enhancements for repeat offenders. News Channel 5 has the story.

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Assets of HRC Owners' Wives Frozen

Davidson County Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon has agreed with prosecutors that the wives of the men running HRC Medical, the former hormone replacement company based in Nashville, were in on the efforts to divert more than a million dollars from the company. Bonnie Hale and Dixie Hale, married to Dan and Don Hale, are now also embroiled in the state of Tennessee's lawsuit against HRC. A judge has ordered that both women's assets be frozen.  Last fall, the attorney general sued HRC alleging the company had put thousands of patients' lives in danger by failing to warn them about the risks and side effects of their so-called bio-identical hormone therapy. Learn more from the Attorney General's office.

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Biggers Named to 'Smart on Crime' Team

Federal prosecutor C. David Biggers Jr. has been appointed local coordinator of prevention and re-entry as part of the government’s recently announced “Smart on Crime” initiative. Under the new program, Biggers will oversee efforts on crime prevention and on felons’ successful re-entry into society after being released from prison. The “Smart on Crime” plan to modernize the federal criminal justice system was announced recently by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a speech to the American Bar Association. The Commercial Appeal reported the news.

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Attorney for Vandy Football Player Says DA Has Been Fair

"The DA's office has been fair and truthful in its dealings with us throughout its dealings in this case," Roger May told the media Wednesday. Boyd is representing Vanderbilt student Chris Boyd, who is charged as an accessory after the fact and accused of taking part in an attempted cover-up of the sexual assault by helping one of the defendants indicted on the rape charges. May said he was "setting the record straight" after Boyd's father earlier this week made claims that the Metro District Attorney’s Office had done "irreparable damage to his son's character and integrity, and that the indictment was unnecessary." The Tennessean has the story and video.

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Knox Application for ICE Program Denied

The Knox County Sheriff’s Office application to participate in a controversial immigration enforcement program has been rejected by federal officials, Knoxnews reports. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which runs the program, attributes its decision to budgetary constraints. “Due to resource concerns, including the impacts of sequestration, ICE is limiting 287(g) participation to those law enforcement agencies with existing [programs].” The 287(g) program authorizes and trains local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

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Panel Reportedly Set to Urge Formal Charges Against Bebb

According to published reports, a state House investigative panel will recommend that House Speaker Beth Harwell appoint a committee to detail specific charges against 10th Judicial District Attorney General Steve Bebb when the General Assembly returns in January. Bebb has been under fire since a series of reports in the Chattanooga Times Free Press raised questions about his ethics and competence. Bebb recently said he is ready to take on his accusers. "I am ready for a hearing," he told The Advocate & Democrat. "Bring your witnesses and I will bring mine."

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Missouri Begins Using New Execution Drug

The state of Missouri will begin using the drug propofol in its executions, the Associated Press reports. It will be the first state to use the drug, which has been used as a sleep aid. The state Supreme Court approved the use of the drug when it set execution dates for two death-row inmates. Several states are scrambling to find execution drugs, which have been in short supply as a result of drug manufacturers’ decisions and court rulings. Missouri’s solution will be short-lived though. It only has three doses of propofol in its stockpile, and the maker of the drug – like many that make other drugs used in executions – says it will no longer sell to corrections departments. The ABA Journal has links to several sources for the story.

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At Least 2 Defendants Free Due to Clerical Error

Two suspected criminals in Williamson County have had their cases dismissed after the courts erred in the issuing of probation violation warrants, WSMV-TV reports. As previously reported, a judge must sign such warrants, but in an unknown number of cases an assistant signed the documents. At least two defendants have had their cases dismissed to date. District Attorney General Kim Helper says the problem is now fixed. "Once it came to the court's attention, both of our general sessions judges took steps immediately to correct the situation that those warrants were not properly signed were dismissed," she said. Helper also said she believes the courts may have been confused by the kind of warrant they were signing. Tennessee law allows standard arrest warrants to be signed by judicial commissioners and clerks, while probation violation warrants must be signed by a judge.

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Federal Courts Cut Pay for Private Defenders

The federal courts say that private lawyers paid to act as federal public defenders will have their salaries cut as part of an attempt to survive government cost-cutting measures, the Associated Press reports. The Judicial Conference of the United States announced Monday it would reduce by $15 an hour the pay of "panel attorneys." The pay for non-capital cases will drop from $125 per hour to $110. The pay for capital cases will drop from a maximum of $179 per hour to $164. The cuts are scheduled to start in September and be in place for the next year. More than 10,000 lawyers serve as panel attorneys, representing defendants financially unable to retain counsel in federal criminal proceedings. WRCB-TV has the story.

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Free Domestic Violence Training for Lawyers, Advocates

The Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence is offering a statewide legal advocacy training session Sept. 6 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Tennessee Health Management in Antioch. Robin Kimbrough, legal counsel for the group, will conduct the training for lawyers and advocates. Topics will include the basics of civil and criminal law in cases of domestic and sexual violence, the role of advocates and attorneys, tips on avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, and benefits for immigrant victims of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, stalking and trafficking. The training is free but reservations are requested. Learn more or register here.

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Child’s Death Highlights DCS Computer Issues

A Chattanooga couple accused of child abuse and murder returned to court today in a case that is shedding new light on how computer problems within the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) impacted caseworkers’ ability to protect children. In this case, a 4-year-old died Dec. 19, 2011, after suffering multiple blunt force injuries. Prosecutors believe the child was beaten by his mother and her live-in boyfriend. In the weeks before the death, at least three claims of child abuse were called into DCS by family members and educators. But in a mix-up that DCS later blamed on its computer system, the abuse reports were assigned to different caseworkers with the result that neither fully knew the extent of the allegations.

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Opinion: Flexible Sentencing Would Help in Tennessee

In an editorial, the Tennessean praises Attorney General Eric Holder’s challenge to the nation’s mandatory minimum sentencing policy and sees a need for the same approach to Tennessee’s criminal justice system. According to the publication, the state prison population has risen 4.5 percent in the past 10 years, and county and jail populations have increased 42 percent. In 2012, the state Correction Department went $20 million over budget. In Tennessee, state officials seem to understand the urgency of the problem created by overcrowding and recidivism and have called for alternative sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders as well as more drug courts to offer judicial supervision, treatment services and other incentives.

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Stanton: Memphis Policies in Step with Holder Plan

When U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder talked this week about “a fundamentally new approach” to the crimes federal prosecutors pursue and the sentences they seek, he outlined an approach that has been taking shape in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee for several years, the Memphis Daily News reports. According to the publication, Holder’s “Smart on Crime” initiatives include the re-entry and drug court dockets already in use in the Western District of Tennessee to continue direct supervision by a judge of offenders after they serve their federal time. “Diversion was something that was somewhat nonexistent,” said Ed Stanton, U.S. Attorney for West Tennessee. “It’s been my policy that diversion should certainly be a tool to be considered when warranted.”

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Judge: NYPD Stop-and-Frisk is Unconstitutional

A federal judge ordered an independent monitor to oversee reforms to the New York City Police Department's stop-and-frisk practice after ruling the policy violated the U.S. Constitution. The ruling, released Monday, found that “the city acted with deliberate indifference toward the NYPD's practice of making unconstitutional stops and conducting unconstitutional frisks." In addition, the judge wrote, “the city adopted a policy of indirect racial profiling by targeting racially defined groups for stops based on local crime suspect data. This has resulted in the disproportionate and discriminatory stopping of blacks and Hispanics in violation of the Equal Protection Clause." The Wall Street Journal has more.

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Holder, Clinton Address ABA House of Delegates

The ABA House of Delegates, meeting today and tomorrow in San Francisco, faces a full agenda of resolutions but “the early buzz [was] over two legal superstars" who addressed the House today, the ABA Journal reports. This morning, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder outlined a new crime and prison policy focusing on what the administration believes is an over-reliance on mandatory minimum sentences. Holder said the department would be directing the nation’s prosecutors to avoid these sentences for “low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with no ties to gangs or drug organizations.” Then this afternoon, Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared before the House to receive the ABA Medal, the association's highest award. The Washington Post has more on both of those stories.

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Court Overturns ‘Antiquated’ Statutory Rape Rule

The Tennessee Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion today, overturned what it called an “antiquated rule” that classifies statutory rape victims as accomplices and requires victims’ testimony to be corroborated by other evidence. The decision came in the case of DeWayne Collier of Shelby County, who was convicted of statutory rape based primarily on the testimony of his victim. He appealed on the basis that prior rulings required that testimony to be backed up by other proof. The court disagreed finding there no longer exists a “no defensible reason” to classify minor victims of sex crimes as accomplices or to characterize their testimony as “inherently unreliable.” Read more from the AOC.

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Tenn. Case Reveals ‘All That is Wrong’ with Justice System, Columnist Says

In his Sunday column, New York Times writer Nicholas D. Kristof writes that “if you want to understand all that is wrong with America’s criminal justice system, take a look at the nightmare experienced by Edward Young.” Young had been convicted of burglary, served his time, and after being released from prison in 1996, he married, worked hard and raised four kids in Hixson. When a neighbor died, Kristof writes, Young helped the widow sort and sell her husband’s belongings. During that process he found some shotgun shells and put them away so his children would not find them. When Young became a suspect in a new spate of burglaries, the police found the shells in his home. He was tried and convicted under a federal law that bars ex-felons from possessing guns or ammunition and carries a 15-year minimum sentence – even though police later dropped the burglary charges. Kristof uses the case to raise questions about the nation’s current sentencing policy and explore alternatives he says are more effective and less costly.

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