News

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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Sentencing in Football Rape Case Set for Friday

Former Vanderbilt University football player Brandon Vandenburg is expected in court Friday for sentencing in a 2013 campus rape case, the Tennessean reports. State law calls for a 15 to 25 year sentence for the crimes committed. Court documents indicate prosecutors will argue for a term close to the top of the range, making the case that Vandenburg was a leader in the assault and therefore deserves a longer prison sentence than the minimum term. Vandenburg has been in jail since a jury convicted him in June. He also has been added to Tennessee’s sex offender registry.

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Court to Hear 5 Cases in Jackson This Week

The Tennessee Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in five cases when it meets this week in Jackson. The Nov. 2 docket involves (1) a death penalty appeal that looks at whether statements to police and witnesses should have been excluded; (2) a case testing whether a trial court has jurisdiction to hear a motion for the return of property after a judgment has finalized; (3) a case testing whether a repairman’s lien may be enforced in any way other than by attachment of the lien to the subject property; (4) a disciplinary matter that looks at whether a trial court’s affirmation of a BPR recommendation imposing a suspension, fine and community service was appropriate; and (5) a workers’ compensation case involving the death of an employee who overdosed on oxycodone he was prescribed for his workplace injury. Read more about these cases and get details on the court's schedule.

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Report: More Ethics Charges Filed Against Weirich

The Board of Professional Responsibility has filed additional disciplinary charges against Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich in the prosecution of Noura Jackson, the Commercial Appeal reports. The charges filed Friday relate to a statement by a witness that was not turned over to the defense until after Jackson’s trial. Weirich was the lead prosecutor in the 2009 trial of Jackson, who was convicted of killing her mother. However, the conviction was “reversed and remanded by the Tennessee Supreme Court based, in part, on the failure of the prosecution to provide exculpatory evidence to the defense,” the BPR argues in the filing. The paper has several filings in the case.

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Harr Sworn in as Eastern District U.S. Attorney

Nancy Stallard Harr was sworn in as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee by Chief District Court Judge Thomas Varlan on Friday, Chattanoogan.com reports. The ceremony took place at the James H. Quillen Federal Courthouse in Greeneville. Harr had been serving as interim U.S. attorney since the retirement of William C. Killian in 2015. Harr is a former prosecutor with the Second Judicial District Attorney’s office in Blountville. She joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1995 in Knoxville and was named supervisor of the Greeneville branch office in 2001.

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Concerns Grow over Comey's Letter to Congress

Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is now dean of the Belmont College of Law, said he was “surprised and a little bit perplexed” by FBI Director James Comey’s decision to discuss an investigation of emails discovered on former Rep. Anthony Weiner's laptop to see if they are related to the bureau's investigation of Clinton's private email server just days before the presidential election. “It is not consistent with [Justice Department] protocol,” he tells the Tennessean. In addition, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee called Comey’s disclosure “not fair to Congress, the American people or Secretary [Hillary] Clinton” because of its vagueness. He has asked Comey to answer a number of questions by Friday, according to WDEF. In other news, a bipartisan group of former state attorneys general (including John Knox Walkup, who served as Tennessee attorney general from 1997 to 1999) have signed a letter calling the congressional notification “a serious mistake," and U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has called on Comey to resign. WCYB has that story.

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Community Caretaking Rule Examined in New TBJ

The Tennessee Supreme Court recently changed its thinking on the Community Caretaking Rule -- Emily Harvey and David Hudson explain in the new issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal. Scott Weiss writes about the ins and outs of community associations: are they the new protectors of civil rights? TBA President Jason Long reflects on and thanks veterans for their sacrifices. He encourages lawyers to help with legal clinics, especially those specifically for veterans. Read these stories and more in the November issue.

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Did Government Err in Oregon Occupation Case?

Seven defendants were caught on camera taking over and occupying an Oregon wildlife refuge, many with guns, yet last week a jury acquitted all of them on weapons charges and conspiracy to intimidate federal workers. Many in the legal profession are wondering how that happened, Today's General Counsel reports. One juror offered his thoughts to the Oregonian: “All 12 jurors felt that this verdict was a statement regarding the failure of the prosecution to prove ‘conspiracy’ in the count itself – and not any form of affirmation of the defense’s various beliefs, actions or aspirations.” An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times suggests the verdict should remind the U.S. Justice Department that a case, and a conspiracy, that might seem obvious to a prosecutor, is not necessarily obvious to a jury.

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Jury Picked for Sammons Trial

The trial for suspended Campbell County Judge Amanda Sammons got underway today with jury selection, WBIR reports. Sammons faces two felony counts of official misconduct for her handling of a case earlier this year while she was on the bench. The trial is expected to last about three days. A grand jury initially indicted Sammons on four counts of official misconduct that were tied to two separate cases. However, senior Judge Paul Summers dismissed two of the counts in mid-October. At issue now are the two charges tied to a case involving 26-year-old Krista Smith of Jacksboro.

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Lipscomb Legal Clinic, Dinner to Honor Gray

The Institute for Law, Justice & Society at Lipscomb University will be renamed in honor of civil rights lawyer Fred D. Gray next month. As part of the renaming celebration, the institute will hold a free legal clinic Nov. 12 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Schrader Lane Church of Christ in Nashville. Volunteers are needed to provide advice on civil, criminal, domestic and probate issues. That evening, the school will host Gray for a dinner and keynote address at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. Tickets are $200 per person. RSVP by Nov. 2 . Contact institute director Randy Spivey, 615-966-2503, for more information about any of these events. Read more about Gray and the institute in the October issue of the Tennessee Bar Journal or in this press release from the school.

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Services Tuesday, Wednesday for Judge Burch

Long-time 23rd Judicial District Circuit Court Judge Robert E. Burch died Friday at the age of 69. A graduate of the Citadel and Vanderbilt Law School, Burch served on the court for 34 years, creating the district’s drug court in 2000. Burch retired in 2014 as presiding judge but returned to the bench this summer under a special appointment to assist with the district’s heavy caseload. He was still serving in that capacity at the time of his death. Visitation will be held at the Taylor Funeral Home tomorrow from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., and at the First Baptist Church of Dickson on Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Funeral services will follow at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the church. Burch will be buried at New Hope Baptist Church Cemetery in Bon Aqua. The family suggests memorial donations be made to the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court. The funeral home has more on his life, while the drug court provides this reflection.

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CCA Changes Name to CoreCivic in Rebranding

Amid continuing scrutiny of the private prison industry, Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America is changing its name to CoreCivic, the Tennessean reports. The new name is designed to communicate that the company solves “tough challenges facing government at all levels and ... the deep sense of service that we feel every day to help people,” President and CEO Damon T. Hininger said. The company has faced challenges in recent months as the federal government announced it would end contracts with private prisons.

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Bundy’s Lawyer Tasered, Arrested after Acquittals

The lawyer representing Ammon Bundy was shocked with a Taser, tackled and arrested after he objected to his client’s continued detention after a jury last week acquitted Bundy and six others of occupying a wildlife refuge in Oregon. The judge in the case refused to release Bundy after the acquittal, saying there is a U.S. Marshal’s hold on him due to a pending federal indictment in Nevada. Bundy’s lawyer, Marcus Mumford, yelled at the judge and struggled with marshals while continuing to argue his client should be released. The ABA Journal has the story and links to other media coverage.

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Obama Commutes 98 Drug-related Sentences

President Barack Obama has commuted 98 more sentences of federal prisoners, the White House announced yesterday. According to the ABA Journal, all 98 recipients had been sentenced for drug crimes, with some also sentenced for related offenses such as firearms possession and money laundering. Of the group, 42 had been sentenced to life in prison. The move comes just a few weeks after Obama commuted 102 sentences, bringing his total to 200 commutations for the month and 872 for his entire presidency – more than those of his 11 predecessors combined, the White House said.

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Hatch Named DUI Prosecutor of the Year

Philip A. Hatch, assistant district attorney in the 13th Judicial District, was named the state’s DUI Prosecutor of the Year by the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, the Herald-Citizen reports. In presenting the award, Byrant C. Dunaway, attorney general in the 13th Judicial District, praised Hatch for several notable DUI convictions, including one that went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court and set new precedent. Hatch, who previously served on the TBA Young Lawyers Division Board, handles cases from Clay, Cumberland, DeKalb, Overton, Pickett, Putnam and White counties from the district’s Cookeville office.

Photo: (from left) Tom Kimball, Byrant Dunaway, Philip Hatch, Jimmy Dunn

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