News

Funk’s Libel Suit Gets Hearing

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk was in court today for a hearing on his libel lawsuit against NewsChannel 5 and its reporter Phil Williams. The suit stems from a story Williams did about an alleged deal Funk made with Nashville developer David Chase to close two cases. Williams refused to reveal his sources for the story, but the person who released the information, lawyer Brian Manookian, has admitting doing so, the Tennessean reports. Earlier today, Tennessean reporter Stacey Barchenger posted live reports from the hearing.

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Lawyer Legislators to Head Key Panels, Return in 2 Weeks

The Tennessee General Assembly adjourned its biannual organizational session today after speakers appointed committee chairs and members in their respective chambers. For the first time in 10 years, all three key committees dealing with legal issues will be chaired by lawyers. Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville, returns as Senate Judiciary Committee chair. House Criminal Justice Committee Chair William Lambreth, R-Cottontown, will continue to head that panel. And Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, will take the helm of the House Civil Justice Committee. Humphrey on the Hill has more.

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State Streamlines Efforts to Help Trafficking Victims

State officials announced formation of the Tennessee Anti-Slavery Alliance, a collaboration between nongovernment agencies in each of the state’s four major metro regions. The four nonprofits, Second Life in Chattanooga, Restore Corps in Memphis, End Slavery Tennessee in Nashville and Grow Free TN in Knoxville, manage human trafficking referrals in their designated region, assist law enforcement agencies in sting operations, and ensure that victims and their families receive the services they need. The alliance is designed to ensure that quality services are provided across the state, the Nooga.com reports.

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Hendersonville Attorney Charged with Theft

Hendersonville attorney Andy Allman, who has been under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation since December, was arrested and booked into the Davidson County jail yesterday afternoon. His house was also searched, WKRN reports. Allman was charged with theft between $60,000 and $200,000. The indictment alleges that he knowingly obtained money and property from a client while acting as a personal representative of an estate without the victim’s consent. 

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TBI Launches Trafficking Billboard Campaign

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a new set of billboards this week centered around its “It Has to Stop” campaign, which is designed to make people more aware of human and sex trafficking. The billboards are being paid for by a $60,000 grant from the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs, WSMV reports. Some of the money also will go to TBI’s online campaign to crack down on trafficking, the TBI said.

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VW Reaches $4.3 Billion Deal to Settle Civil, Criminal Charges

Volkswagen has agreed to a $4.3 billion settlement to resolve civil and criminal investigations into the German automaker's diesel emissions cheating, Reuters reports this afternoon. U.S. prosecutors also charged six Volkswagen executives and employees for their roles in the nearly 10-year conspiracy to mislead regulators and customers about diesel emissions from VW cars. Volkswagen had previously agreed to spend up to $17.5 billion in the United States to resolve claims by U.S. regulators, owners and dealers and offered to buy back nearly 500,000 polluting vehicles.

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Day 2 of Sessions Hearing Offers Conflicting Views

For a second day, the issue of racism was at the center of the confirmation hearing for attorney general designate Jeff Sessions, UPI reports. After questioning Sessions for more than 10 hours yesterday, the Senate Judiciary Committee today turned its attention to testimony from others – including three black lawmakers who all recommended against his confirmation. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Cedric Richmond, D-La., questioned Sessions’ past views on race and whether he would aggressively pursue civil rights, equal rights and justice for all citizens. Representing a different perspective, Sessions’ former chief counsel, who also is black, told the committee, “I have not seen the slightest hint of racism because it does not exist.”

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Court Declines to Hear Backpage Lawsuit

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday decided not to hear the case of Jane Doe v. Backpage.com, a civil suit filed by sex-trafficking victims that contends the website helps facilitate sex trafficking of minors. That decision leaves in place a ruling by the First Circuit Court of Appeals that the company is covered by the Communications Decency Act and protected from claims against third-party content. Despite that win, Backpage.com announced Monday it is shutting down its adult advertising section, the ABA Journal reports. The move appears to be a response to a report from a Senate subcommittee accusing the company of editing ads to remove evidence of child sex trafficking.

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Sessions’ Hearing Hits Hot Button Issues

Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions went before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee today and mounted a full-scale response to what he has described as character attacks against him and false charges about his past. The hearing, which was interrupted from time to time by protestors, covered a range of “hot button” issues including civil rights, immigration, a border wall, same-sex marriage and abortion, with Sessions saying he will uphold the law even if he does not agree with it. Sessions also said he would recuse himself from any investigation of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation given his past comments on those issues. The hearing continues tomorrow with unprecedented testimony by one sitting senator, Illinois’ Cory Booker, against another. Read Sessions’ opening statement.

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Jury Sentences Charleston Church Shooter to Death

A federal district court jury decided today to sentence Dylann Roof to death for his June 2015 attack on a South Carolina black church that left nine people dead. The jurors took very little time to make their decision after closing arguments, USA Today reports. The jury found that all aggravating factors applied and rejected some mitigating factors. Observers noted that Roof showed little remorse during the proceedings. In writings from his jailhouse cell, Roof said, “I do not regret what I did. I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed.”

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Nashville Police Offer No Rebuttal to Disparity Claims

Nashville police and the critics of their traffic stops remained at odds during and after a specially called meeting Monday at Metro Council chambers, Nashville Public Radio reports. The session featured testimony by the criminal justice reform group Gideon’s Army, which authored a study showing that Nashville police disproportionately stop and search the vehicles of black drivers. Police representatives offered no direct rebuttal to the findings and made no promises of reform.

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TBJ Covers Immigration, Child Sexual Abuse, Family Law, Humor

Companies’ hiring of employees using work visas is a tedious business, but Nashville lawyer Dan E. White details it in the January Tennessee Bar Journal. Since the printing of the issue, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) increased filing fees by an average of 21 percent. Read the article online, which now includes the specifics on the updated fees. Also in this issue, John Day writes about child sexual abuse victims, and Marlene Eskind Moses and Benjamin Russ explain the doctrine of “inconvenient forum.” Bill Haltom looks at the flip side of “absence of malice.” Read the January TBJ.

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DA Employee Resigns after Release of Rape Report

Ken Whitehouse, the director of research and media relations for the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, has resigned amid growing pressure from police, who curtailed his access to police databases after he provided a rape incident report to a local television station. Nashville News 2 reports that an internal audit by the police department found that Whitehouse ran several hundred searches in a database that includes incident reports, arrest information, mug shots and court documents. Whitehouse yesterday submitted a resignation letter, in which he admits violating user agreements between the DA’s office and other law enforcement agencies regarding access to data. The Tennessean has a copy of the letter.

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Proposed Bill Would Expedite Death Penalty Appeals

A bill filed Friday in the state House aims to eliminate a step in death penalty appeals, sending cases directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the Tennessean reports. The legislation, filed by Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, would provide for direct appeal to the state Supreme Court of any death penalty case heard by a trial court. Lamberth notes that Tennessee is just one of a handful of states that requires intermediate appellate courts to hear these cases. He says defendants and victims’ families alike deserve an expedited process.

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Policing Concerns Get Hearing by Metro Council

Gideon’s Army, a group that reviewed racial disparities in local policing and demanded changes to how traffic stops are conducted, will have a chance to make its case to the Metro Nashville Council. Council members have been considering whether to require police to routinely share data on traffic stops. Gideon’s Army said its presentation will include material from researchers and from black drivers who were interviewed for the study. The council also has invited the police department to present its side of the story, Nashville Public Radio reports.

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Issues, Legislators to Watch as New Session Starts

Tennessee lawmakers are set to return to Nashville tomorrow to officially convene the 110th General Assembly. According to analysts with the the Tennessean, there are several issues likely to dominate the session. They include: increasing the gas tax with a possible offsetting reduction in food tax; tackling criminal justice reform; allowing marijuana for medical conditions but cracking down on cities that try to reduce penalties for possession; pay raises for teachers; and expanded use of school vouchers. The USA Today network reporting also looks at legislators to watch in the new session.

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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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