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$11 Million Settlement Reached in Tennessee Suit Alleging False Arrest and False Imprisonment of Minors

by Ed Lyon

On December 20, 2021, a settlementwas approved by a federal court in a lawsuit alleging the illegal arrest and detention of some 1,500 children at the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. As a result, members of the proposed classes of plaintiffs were eligible to receive a standard payout of $1,033.33 for each illegal arrest and $4,822.22 for each illegal incarceration.

The settlement ends a racket begun shortly after the November 2000 election of Donna Scott Davenport to fill a juvenile court judgeship created three months before. In the 22 years since then, according to court documents, Davenport established “a de facto policy requiring all juveniles charged with any delinquent or unruly offense be taken into custody” at JDC. She also had JDC Director Lynn Duke begin a “filter system” that “causes children charged with delinquent or status offenses to be illegally incarcerated pretrial” at the lockup.

In 2016, five minor children, identified as E.J., A.B., J.B. #1, J.B. #2 and K.W., filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, accusing county officials and a Murfreesboro police officer of false arrest and false imprisonment, in violation of T.C.A. §§ 40-7-118 and 37-1-114(c), as well as the federal constitution. The Court granted a preliminary injunction that put a stop to Duke’s “filter system” in May 2017. See: E.J. v. Templeton, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73598 (M.D. Tenn.).

After a second claim was filed that year by another former juvenile detainee, Dylan Geerts, the Court consolidated the two suits, deferring plaintiffs’ request to certify a class-action in July 2019 to provide time to file an amended complaint clarifying class definitions. See: K.W. ex rel. Davis v. Rutherford Cty., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120016 (M.D. Tenn.).

After that amended complaint was filed in August 2019, the parties proceeded to reach their settlement agreement, which defines four classes it benefits. For two, injunctive relief was sought: a class composed of those subject to Davenport’s “always arrest” policy and a subset of that group subject to incarceration by Duke’s “filter system.” For two more classes of those wrongfully arrested and/or incarcerated, damages were provided from a total settlement fund of $11 million, to be distributed as follows:

• Up to $516,666.67 for an estimated 500 claims from the “arrest class,” or $1,033.33 each;

• Up to $7,233,333.33 for an estimated 1,500 claims from the “detention class,” or $4,822.22 each;

• Up to $2,750,000 in fees, representing 25% of the total settlement, for the Nashville attorneys providing class counsel, Kyle Mothershead of The Law Office of Kyle Mothershead, Frank Brazil of Brazil Clark, PLLC, and Mark J. Downton, of counsel for Brazil Clark, PLLC;

• $110,000 in litigation expenses reimbursed to class counsel;

• $290,000 to Settlement Services, Inc., for settlement administration costs; and

• $100,000 to be shared in four equal service awards of $25,000 to named plaintiffs representing each of the proposed classes.

A 130-day period was provided for claims to be submitted after preliminary approval was granted on June 21, 2021. Recognizing that the number of claims then received may vary from estimates, the parties provided a minimum total payout for the arrest class of $129,166.67 and $1,808,333.33 for the detention class, to be divided equally among the claims actually received.

The settlement also includes an agreement by the County to make the Court’s preliminary injunction of the “filter system” permanent, and class counsel will monitor the agreement for two years. The same day the Court entered its judgment, it awarded class counsel actual attorney’s fees of $2,510,000. See: Geerts v. Rutherford Cnty., USDC (M.D. Tenn.), Case No. 3:17-01014.

“Mother of the County”

After her election, Davenport began
referring to herself as “Mother of the County” in frequent radio and television interviews, also hosting a monthly public service broadcast touting her work on WGNS. In interviews, she said her qualifications included being “trained well in 17 years by different law enforcement agencies,” where she had learned to observe “subtle signs” exhibited by gang members in her court, such as “wearing something to the right or to the left, or a color here or a color there.”

She also stated she was a campus police officer for three years while attending Middle Tennessee State University, though school records show only that she was a part-time dispatcher, then a clerk-typist, then secretary, beginning in 1977. Graduating from law school in 1986, she passed the bar exam on her fifth attempt nine years later and was admitted to the state bar.

Once elected, Davenport convinced county commissioners to fund a new JDC. She also appointed Duke as JDC’s director—a position she still holds—when Davenport’s first choice for the job was arrested for drug crimes hours after his appointment.

Three years after the new JDC was approved, it opened in 2008, with 64 beds, no shelter for runaways and abused children but with new courtrooms for Davenport and a magistrate. The statewide average for all 98 juvenile courts in Tennessee reflects an incarceration rate of five percent. But with Davenport’s arrest policy and Duke’s filtering system, juvenile incarcerations in Rutherford County skyrocketed to 48 percent of all cases.

“We are in a crisis with our children in Rutherford County,” Davenport insisted, adding: “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

“I’m here on a mission,” continued the judge, who readily admitted jailing a seven-year-old child, “[because] I’m seeing a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds.”

The scheme finally became widespread knowledge with a mass arrest at Murfreesboro’s Hobgood Elementary School on April 15, 2016, after video surfaced of two boys aged five and six ineffectually punching at a much larger boy as he walked away. Several other children watched, with one repeatedly yelling, “Stop.”

Though the incident didn’t occur on school grounds, Mufreesboro Police Officer Chrystal Templeton, who was the resource officer in another school, decided to work the case. By this point in Templeton’s stellar career with the city police force, she had been suspended nine times with 37 disciplinary impositions. Even though an assistant prosecutor said failing to stop the fight did not justify criminal charges, Templeton schemed with two of the county’s judicial commissioners to charge 10 of the spectating children, all black and ranging in age from 8 to 12 years, with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.”

Except that’s not an actual crime in Tennessee.

Nevertheless, cops picked up 11 children, including the twin sister of a 12-year-old on the list who was not even at the scene of the fight. After these very public arrests aroused public ire, investigations were launched before the two lawsuits were filed and consolidated into the proposed class-action, with the County left as the lone defendant.

When granting a preliminary injunction in May 2017 that struck down Duke’s filter system, a federal judge said its drastic departure from ordinary standards resulted in “illegal detention” for children causing them to suffer “irreparable harm” on a daily basis.

But Davenport and Duke were also detaining children for other counties at JDC, charging $175 per day for each one. Duke publicly stated, “If we have empty beds, we will fill them with a paying customer … We get a lot of business.”

“Business,” one county commissioner parroted, amid laughter from other commissioners, who followed up with: “Hey, it’s a business. Generating revenue.”

On October 20, 2021, Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis and ten other Democrats in the U.S. House sent letters to Attorney General Merrick Garland for a Justice Department investigation of Davenport, Duke and Rutherford County JDC.

Duke was still in her position in early April 2022, but the dustup over JDC had cost Davenport two jobs. In October 2021, Middle Tennessee State University announced she was no longer an adjunct professor at the school. Then in January 2022, “after prayerful thought,” she decided to retire when her term ends the following August 31, rather than seek a fourth term on juvenile court bench.

“The ‘always arrest’ policy is no longer in effect either,” said Mothershead, class counsel. “This was not the result of a court order, but rather the law-enforcement agencies changing their juvenile-arrest policies in response to our lawsuit.” 


Additional sources: Daily Kos, Daily News Journal, Insider, WPLN

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