Nashville officials deny that Ronald Brooks’ civil rights were violated when he was detained, shackled and taken to Memphis on an arrest warrant intended for someone else. But just in case a jury finds otherwise, lawyers already are scrambling to pin the blame on Memphis.
The Davidson County Sheriff’s Office claims it’s not their fault that Brooks, 59, was held on here on a Shelby County warrant, then hauled 200 miles away, only to be released hours later when Memphis authorities realized they had the wrong man. And not surprisingly, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office is shirking responsibility too.
In a million-dollar civil rights lawsuit, Brooks names both law enforcement agencies as defendants. “I’m going to let them worry about who has to pay,” says David Raybin, the Nashville lawyer representing Brooks.
Attorneys with Metro’s Legal Department argue Memphis should have to cover any damages a jury might award in the case, claiming local authorities were simply following Shelby County’s lead. In addition, they say that Memphis is accused of additional wrongdoing after removing Brooks from Nashville.
“Our position, as set forth in our third party complaint, is that Shelby County is or may be liable for all or part of any fault which may be attributed to the Metropolitan Government,” Frank Young, the attorney representing Nashville, writes in an email to the Scene. As for whether Davidson County acted properly, he says, “Our position, as stated in our answer, is that all information contained on the Shelby County warrant matched Mr. Brooks.”
When contacted about the lawsuit, Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn says he can’t comment because the case “is at a very early stage relative to our defense in the matter.”
The lawsuit was first filed against Nashville in Davidson County Circuit Court in April, but recently it was transferred to federal court, where the case was expanded to include Shelby County. Last week, a federal judge denied Shelby County’s request to be dismissed from the suit.
“Nashville didn’t bother to fingerprint him or request a mug shot, and Memphis just came and got him and carried him over there where he languished in jail,” says Raybin, recounting Brooks’ ordeal.
On March 30, 2006, a Metro Police officer busted Brooks for possessing an illegal numbers ticket. The officer didn’t arrest Brooks for the misdemeanor gambling charge, instead issuing a citation and instructing him to report for booking at a later date.
So on April 13, 2006, Brooks strolled into the sheriff’s office expecting to be out in an hour or so. But when a sheriff’s deputy entered Brooks’ name and Social Security number in a statewide database, it appeared there were outstanding warrants for his arrest in Franklin and Memphis.
The sheriff’s office contacted both jurisdictions and, without requesting mug shots or fingerprints to verify the matches, proclaimed they had “the right man,” according to the lawsuit. But Franklin law enforcement quickly determined the suspect in Nashville was considerably older than the “Ronald Brooks” wanted in Williamson County. But Memphis authorities wanted Brooks, and reportedly instructed Davidson County to hold onto him until they arrived.
After learning that Shelby County sheriff’s deputies were on their way to arrest him on forgery charges, Brooks insisted they were making a mistake, saying he had never even been to Memphis.
Lawyers for Brooks say protocol is for mug shots and fingerprints to be requested before releasing a suspect to another jurisdiction on a warrant, and that such a precaution takes only a few minutes. In this instance, a simple comparison of photos or prints would have prevented a major snafu. “It’s not a mistake; it’s something that was easily avoidable,” Raybin says. “He had never been to Memphis, so he had obviously committed no crimes there. He tried explaining that, but they ignored him.”
And so Brooks was detained until Memphis authorities arrived and took him into custody. Because he only expected to be gone a few hours, Brooks, who suffers from diabetes, didn’t have the necessary prescriptions with him. Despite feeling weak and ill, Brooks was offered only minimal medical attention and no medication, the lawsuit claims.
Eventually Brooks was transported to Memphis “in chains and irons” and thrown in jail, where his diabetic situation reportedly worsened. After spending the night in a cell, Brooks was fingerprinted, and that’s when Memphis authorities realized they had the wrong guy. The lawsuit claims that, throughout the entire ordeal, law enforcement officials never contacted Brooks’ wife, who was unsure of her husband’s whereabouts for almost 24 hours.
“Without money, without food, without medicine, without any means of contacting anyone, Mr. Brooks was released from jail in Shelby County to wander the streets to try and find some way of contacting his family,” according to court papers. Brooks managed to track down some acquaintances in Memphis, and ultimately his wife sent money for him to buy a bus ticket home.
It turns out that Brooks—having lost his wallet several years earlier—was the victim of identity theft, and the man wanted in Memphis had apparently used his name and Social Security number to forge several checks.
“Identity theft in this day and age is so common and so widespread that the use of fingerprints and mug shots should be mandatory before an individual is held to be sent to some other jurisdiction,” according to the lawsuit, which also claims Davidson County routinely deprives black individuals of their constitutional rights by refusing to listen when they insist authorities “have the wrong man.”
What’s even worse, the plaintiff claims, is that this isn’t the first time Davidson County has mistakenly sent a black suspect to another jurisdiction on an outstanding warrant, only to discover a grave error.
In December 2006, Tommie Rice, who is black, was arrested in Nashville and charged with a sex crime that occurred in Maryland. Without comparing fingerprints or mug shots, the sheriff’s office in Nashville sent Rice to Maryland, where he spent three weeks in jail before authorities there learned he was not the right Tommie Rice.In Ronald Brooks’ case, a trial is scheduled to begin in June 2008. But before then, Raybin says, “We are going to find out how many more people this has happened to.”
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