News

Lawsuit Challenges State Sex Offender Registry

Retroactive enforcement of Tennessee’s sex offender registry law is being challenged in a federal lawsuit that mimics a successful suit that struck down similar laws in Michigan, the Tennessean reports. The case, filed Tuesday in federal court in Nashville, argues that the state’s registration laws, which have been added piecemeal over the years, are illegally applied retroactively. The suit alleges the increasingly burdensome requirements are onerous, vague and arbitrary, and cites 10 cases from around the country that have found retroactive enforcement of registries unconstitutional.

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Trial Set for June 19 for 3rd Football Player

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins has set June 19 as the trial date for Brandon E. Banks, the third former Vanderbilt student and football player charged in the rape of an unconscious woman in 2013. Banks has pleaded not guilty to five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery, the Tennessean reports. His case has been on hold while two other defendants went to trial. They were both found guilty and sentenced to prison. Banks' lawyer said plea negotiations will continue as the case moves toward trial.

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Stanton, Weirich Announce Special Heroin Prosecutor

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton and Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich are joining forces to support a special prosecutor to go after those responsible for heroin overdoses and deaths, the Commercial Appeal reports. At the request of Stanton, the board of the Gulf Coast High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas approved a grant to hire a full-time prosecutor in Shelby County. The yet-to-be-named individual will come from Weirich’s office, but will be named a special assistant U.S. attorney and will work with federal, state and local officials on heroin cases. The pair hope to have a prosecutor on the job by January.

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State to Seek Trial for 3rd Vanderbilt Rape Defendant

Prosecutors on Thursday will ask to set a trial date for a third ex-football player charged in the rape of an unconscious woman at Vanderbilt University, the Tennessean reports. Felony charges against Brandon E. Banks have been pending while two other former football players went to trial and were sentenced to prison. Banks’ lawyer has been working with the state to try and reach a deal to avoid a trial. The move to set a trial date may signal that those negotiations have stalled, the paper suggests.

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Youth Courts Expand, Maintain Low Recidivism Rate

Tennessee has seen growth in its youth court program recently with new pilot programs at Antioch Middle Prep and Dupont Hadley Middle Prep in Nashville, a new program at Stratford High School in Nashville and a new program in Union County. Tennessee Youth Courts Executive Director Denise D. Bentley also recently reported that a review of the statewide program showed a recidivism rate around three percent for the third year in a row with 2,000 youth served this past year. The program celebrated October as National Youth Justice Awareness Month. In a proclamation designating the month, President Barack Obama praised the work of youth courts and called on Congress to “increase protections for youth and limit the number of minors held in adult jails and prisons.”

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AG's Office Clarifies Testimony to 6th Circuit Court of Appeals

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III released a statement about a letter his office sent to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in the matter of Andrew Thomas v. Bruce Westbrooks, a death penalty case. The letter from Assistant Attorney General Michael M. Stall seeks to clarify his testimony before the court this month about a $750 payment made to a witness in a federal case involving Andrew Thomas, which occured three years prior to the state case. The letter and today's statement emphasizes that “the payment … was made by the federal government without the knowledge of or involvement by District Attorney General Amy Weirich” and “there has been no finding whatsoever that state prosecutors in this case had actual knowledge of the payment at the time of the state trial.” Read the letter or this explanation from the AG's office.

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Memphis Law Hosts Implicit Bias Conference

The University of Memphis School of Law is hosting a conference on implicit bias next Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event “A New Look at an Old Problem” will explore what implicit bias is, how it operates, how to recognize it and how to manage its influence. Speakers include U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bernice B. Donald, District Court Judge Jon P. McCalla, Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan H. Michael, immediate past ABA President Paulette Brown and a host of law professors from across the country. See the full program or register online.

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Software Causing Major Problems at Shelby Courthouse, Jail

A $10-million upgrade to the computer system at the Shelby County Criminal Justice System is causing big problems at the courthouse and the jail, Local Memphis reports. Issues have included court dockets being wrong and inmates not being located in the jail so they can be brought to scheduled court appearances. One lawyer told reporters that one of his clients has been there seven days. “We can’t locate him. We don’t know what he has been charged with. No bond has been set,” said attorney Claiborne Ferguson. The software company has 20 employees in town to help resolve issues and county technology staff are working on the problem 24/7, court officials say.

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Comments Sought on Reappointment of Federal PD

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is seeking comments from those who are in a position to evaluate the performance of Henry Martin, federal public defender for the Middle District of Tennessee. Martin’s current term will expire on July 23, 2017, and he is eligible for reappointment. Comments should be submitted by Nov. 15. Get details about how to submit comments.

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TBJ Columns Cover History, the BPR and What Not to Tweet

The Tennessee Bar Journal this month includes regular columns by Russell Fowler, Wade Davies and Bill Haltom. In "History’s Verdict," Fowler writes about Will Thomas, a lawyer who was embraced by and relentlessly defended the Cherokees in the 1800s. Davies, who is wrapping up his term on the Board of Professional Responsibility, details in his column "Crime & Punishment" some of the ways lawyers get into hot water -- and the relatively easy steps to take to stay out of trouble. In "But Seriously, Folks!" Haltom looks at the series of events that unfolded after University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds tweeted just three words: “Run them down.” Nick McCall reviews the book Almighty: Courage, Resistance and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age. Read the November issue.

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Court: Videos Do Not Meet Statutory Standard for Exploitation Conviction

The Tennessee Supreme Court today reversed and dismissed the conviction of a Knoxville-area man for “especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor” saying the videos he took of his 12-year-old daughter showed nudity but not sexual activity, both of which are needed to meet the requirements of the statute. The decision sends the exploitation convictions back to the lower court for a new trial on different charges with the justices suggesting the state might want to consider a charge of "attempt to commit especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor." The justices let other convictions related to the case stand. Read the decision

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Janet Reno, 1st Woman AG, Dies at 78

Janet Reno, the first woman to hold the post of U.S. attorney, died today at her home in Miami-Dade County, Florida. She was 78 and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease since 1995. Reno served as the nation’s top law enforcement officer for eight years, which included some of the most divisive times of the Bill Clinton presidency and two events that garnered national attention: a deadly federal raid on the compound of a religious cult in Waco and the return of refugee Elián González to his father in Cuba. Key cases included the prosecution of the World Trade Center and Oklahoma City federal building bombers, and the filing of an antitrust suit against Microsoft and a suit against the tobacco industry. The New York Times has more on her life.

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Obama Commutes Another 72 Sentences

President Barack Obama on Friday commuted the sentences of 72 additional federal inmates. That  move brings Obama's total number of commutations to 944 people, the ABA Journal reports. Just eight days ago, the president commuted 98 sentences. In a post on the White House Blog, White House counsel Neil Eggleston wrote, “What President Obama has done for commutations is unprecedented in the modern era.” He is “demonstrating that our nation is a nation of second chances.”

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U.S. Attorney Stanton Promotes Lawyers, Staff

U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton has promoted three attorneys and two staff members in his West Tennessee offices. In the Memphis office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carroll Andre was named criminal division chief, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keenan Carter was named deputy civil chief, staff member Marian Peete was promoted to legal supervisory assistant and LaRita Bearden was named a victim witness specialist. In the Jackson office, Assistant U.S. Attorney Beth Boswell was named chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force. The Jackson Sun has more on each of these promotions.

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Lawmakers, ACLU Blast Delay in Polk Release

A number of Tennessee lawmakers and the state chapter of the ACLU say a Nashville man in custody for two years on false allegations should be released immediately. The Tennessean reported this week that Robert E. Polk, 33, was still in custody even though his wife admitted she made up the charges that sent him to prison. The situation has also led some lawmakers to call for a study of the parole board to see if there are loopholes that allow appeals to take so long. A parole board spokeswoman said Polk will get a new hearing to review his case.

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Vandenburg Sentenced to 17 Years

Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins ruled Friday that Brandon Vandenburg will spend 17 years in prison for his role in the rape of an unconscious woman in his Vanderbilt University dorm room more than three years ago. The former college football player, 23, was found guilty of five counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated sexual battery and unlawful photography. He will now go to Bledsoe County Correctional Complex for intake and an assessment to determine where he will serve his sentence, the Tennessean reports.

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Court OKs Good-Faith Exception to Exclusionary Rule

The Tennessee Supreme Court today by a vote of 4-1 approved a limited good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule only when law enforcement acts in objectively reasonable good-faith reliance on “binding appellate precedent” that “specifically authorizes a particular police practice” that is later overruled. The decision came in a vehicle accident case from October 2011 in which law enforcement obtained a blood sample from the driver without a warrant because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that warrants were not required to obtain blood from DUI suspects. That decision was later overruled. Justice Sharon G. Lee was the lone dissent.

TBA Board Member and Franklin criminal defense lawyer David Veile said, “It would seem that the citizen, and not the police, will now literally be penalized for previous appellate judge error. The court cited with approval authority indicating that law enforcement officers are the vanguard of our legal system. As a former police officer, I would respectfully submit that the Tennessee Constitution, and its checks and balances on the prosecution of its citizens, should be the vanguard of our legal system.”

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Dobson Speaks at UT Lecture, Unveils Foundation

Speaking to an auditorium of current and future lawyers, Zenobia Dobson announced a foundation to help her accomplish her vision of safe places for children. Delivering the University of Tennessee Legal Clinic’s Charles H. Miller lecture, Dobson spoke of channeling her grief into the Zaevion Dobson Memorial Foundation in memory of her 15-year-old son, a Fulton High School student who died shielding two female friends from gang gunfire. Three Knoxville attorneys are working pro bono for the nonprofit and Pinnacle Bank is accepting donations, Knoxnews reports. For more information contact zaeviondobsonfoundation@gmail.com.

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Lawmaker to Try Again on ‘MaKayla’s Law’

State Sen. Sara Kyle, D-Memphis, says lawmakers should reexamine gun safety in the wake of deaths like MaKayla Dyer, a Jefferson County girl killed last year by her 11-year-old neighbor, reportedly because she refused to show him a puppy. Kyle says she will again attempt to get penalties in place for adults who do not secure their guns and a child gains access to the weapon and shoots someone. These cases are “often 100 percent preventable had the guns been stored safely. Safe storage does save lives,” Kyle said. In Dyer’s case, the young shooter was able to get his father’s shotgun from a closet, Nashville Public Radio reports.

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All Charges against Judge Sammons Dismissed

Senior Judge Paul Summers today threw out all charges against Campbell County General Sessions Court Judge Amanda Sammons, who was in court this week for a trial on two counts of official misconduct. After a day of testimony, Summers ruled that the state had failed to present enough proof of official misconduct for the jury to consider the case, Knoxnews reports. Special prosecutor Dan Armstrong said he will consult with the state attorney general’s office about an appeal of today’s decision as well as an earlier ruling by Summers in which he dismissed two unrelated charges. The Board of Judicial Conduct also said today it would lift its suspension of Sammons, clearing the way for her return to the bench.

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More than 50 Students Join Hamilton County Youth Court

More than 50 students from 12 Chattanooga area schools have been trained and sworn in to the Hamilton County Youth Court, the Hamilton County Herald reports. Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw administered the oath to the students, who have undergone significant training by local juvenile court staff. After the ceremony, Philyaw thanked local school administrators and attorneys at Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee for their support. “While youth courts contribute to a decrease in recidivism … its true value and long-lasting effect lies with the students who are exposed to the law, the judicial process, and professionals like these,” he said. Tennessee now has 19 counties with 26 youth courts

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County Puts off Vote on Marijuana Penalty

The Shelby County Commission put off a vote on a proposed ordinance to reduce the penalty for possession of a half-ounce or less of marijuana after the co-sponsor asked for additional time to resolve an outstanding issue. The Commercial Appeal reports that Van Turner is asking the county attorney’s office to determine if the law can be written for only the southeast portion of the county’s unincorporated areas. 

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Nashville Community Court Serving Hundreds

Davidson County General Sessions Judge Rachel Bell has taken the lead on the General Sessions Music City Community Court, which is focused on working on preventive and diversionary justice. The concept of the program is to offer court services in various locations around Nashville and Davidson County. In October, the court held two Saturday sessions. Offerings included a Community Service Docket; Pro Se Indigency Docket, which served more than 100; and an Expungement Clinic, which reviewed 500 criminal records, Nashville Pride reports. The next Indigency Docket and Expungement Clinic will be held Nov. 19 at the Boys & Girls Club on 16th Avenue. Registration starts at 8 a.m. and will be limited to the first 100 persons to register. The clinic will begin at 10 a.m.

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New Cameras Coming to Coffee County Jail

The Coffee County Sheriff’s Department will soon install 11 video cameras in the county jail and purchase new bulletproof and stab-proof vests for its deputies, the Manchester Times reports. The cameras, which are estimated to cost between $20,000 and $25,000, will be paid for through the department’s drug fund. They will be installed in holding rooms and an area where evidence is stored – neither of which have any current video surveillance.The department also has received a grant of $41,000 from the Tennessee Justice Department’s Bulletproof Vest Partnership. The grant will cover 50 percent of the cost of the vests, with the sheriff’s department’s drug fund covering the other half.

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Mental Health Court Forum Set for Thursday

A public forum is scheduled for Thursday to continue planning for the 10th Judicial District Mental Health Court, which was announced earlier this fall. The court will serve Bradley, Polk, Monroe and McMinn counties. The forum will take place at 6:30 p.m. at the Bradley County Courthouse. Circuit Court Judge Andrew Freiberg said the court’s mission is “to recognize the existence of mental illness and provide sentencing alternatives to those individuals in the criminal justice system who may be rehabilitated through appropriate mental health treatment.” He posted a reminder of the event on Facebook. The court is scheduled to open in January.

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