West Tennessee police department, clerk's office facing class-action lawsuit over arrest warrants

JACKSON, Tenn. — A West Tennessee police department and city court clerk’s office are accused of improperly executing arrest warrants.

The City of Jackson is facing a federal class-action lawsuit.

Two residents of Jackson – Steven Cox and Kelly Freeman – filed the lawsuit against the City of Jackson, Jackson Police Chief Julien Wiser and Jackson City Court Clerk Daryl Hubbard.

The lawsuit alleges the clerk did not swear officers in under oath before signing arrest warrants.

‘A constitutional issue’

C. Mark Donahoe is a Jackson-based attorney representing Cox, Freeman and other potential clients on the lawsuit.

He is one of four attorneys listed on the lawsuit.

His clients filed the lawsuit in United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, a federal court, on Feb. 11.

“It’s primarily based in a constitutional issue, which resolves around the actual arrest,” said Donahoe. “What we’re saying is they were arrested, held in jail, had to make bond – illegally – because the warrant was not done properly.”

FOX13 sat down with Donahoe in his office a week after the lawsuit was filed.

FOX13: If one piece of [the arresting process] is missing, then what happens?
Donahoe: Then you have a constitutional violation and at that point it becomes an illegal arrest and an illegal detention. And at that point, a civil rights violation.
FOX13: Their rights were violated?
Donahoe: Correct.

‘That’s why it went on for so long’

One of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit is Freeman.

In January 2017, Jackson police pulled her over near Old Hickory and the Bypass, according to a complaint.

Freeman was charged with driving under the influence, according to multiple documents provided to FOX13 Investigates.

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The case, on paper, looks simple: an officer signed the complaint; another person signed above the “judge/clerk” line.

FOX13: How looking at this document can you see that they’re not –
Donahoe: Well you can’t. That’s the problem. That’s why it went on for so long before somebody caught it.

The DA’s letter

The way the practice of not swearing in officers was noticed, said Donahoe, was by Madison County District Attorney Jody Pickens.

On Jan. 3, a case caught his eye, according to a letter (pickens-letter-jackson) Pickens wrote less than two weeks later to Donahoe and other attorneys whose clients may have been affected by the practice.

Pickens wrote the practice involved a felony “drug and guns [case that] was dismissed after it was determined that the Jackson City Court Clerk or one of his deputies did not have the affiant swear to the warrant as is required by T.C.A § 40-6-203 and Rule 3 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure.”

Pickens elaborated further in his letter:

"During [a Jan. 4 meeting], I learned from a [Jackson Police Department] supervisor at Jackson City Court, that during the time he has been at Jackson City Court he had never been placed under oath by a clerk before signing a warrant.

Furthermore, an investigation by the administration of the Jackson Police Department has determined that for a long period of time and in a large number of cases, the Jackson City Court Clerk's office has failed to place affiants under oath prior to the issuance of warrants. This failure makes the warrants legally void."

Pickens wrote of his concerns due to “a great number of the cases pending” in court had a voided warrant.

"Obviously, the problem created by the failure of the Jackson City Court Clerk's office to place affiants under oath prior to the issuance of a warrant has many different angles and the scope of the problems created by this failure cannot be understated. My office has taken steps to have warrants in pending cases re-issued and the earlier void warrants dismissed.

At my suggestion, the Jackson Police Department is in the process of having un-served, void warrants dismissed, and valid warrants issued in their stead."

Pickens declined an interview with FOX13 Investigates, citing his anticipation of being a potential witness in the lawsuit.

Several thousand potential cases

FOX13 Investigates went to Jackson Police Department to speak with Police Chief Wiser.

Though named in the lawsuit, there are no allegations of him personally knowing of the issues.

Staff working on Tuesday said he wasn’t in the office that day; instead, Maj. Thom Corley met our crew in the lobby.

“We’re not going to comment,” said Corley.

FOX13 also went to Rainey, Kizer, Reviere and Bell, a law firm in Jackson representing the city, police department and clerk’s office.

A lawyer with the firm would not comment, stating it was “unethical to comment on ongoing litigation.”

When asked how long the practice was going on, Donahoe said he doesn’t exactly know.

“We don’t exactly know how far back it goes,” said Donahoe. “Our estimation is 15 years or so.”

So far, Donahoe said his firm fielded about 100 calls within the first few days of the filing of the lawsuit.

“At this point, we don’t know how big the class is going to be, so it’s really premature to get into any discussion along that line [about money suing for,” said Donahoe. “So, it’s really hard to say. But we expect, obviously through city court, several thousand [people on the lawsuit].”