County says it's 'immune' to wrongful arrest lawsuits

Knox County's legal team says it won't use taxpayer dollars to pay people claiming they were wrongfully arrested due to errors by the office of the criminal court clerk. 2-14-14

Knox County's legal team says it won't offer tax payer dollars to compensate residents who allege that they were wrongfully arrested because of mistakes made by the criminal court clerk's office.

And, attorneys have submitted the paperwork asking the Knox County Circuit Court to throw out one lawsuit, saying the county and its officials are protected from such legal action.

So far, two residents have asked for damages, and local leaders say they expect more legal action soon.

In one case, a Seymour teenager last November filed a demand letter with the county that asked for $50,000 after he was arrested for driving on a revoked license a year earlier that wasn't supposed to be suspended. He has not taken further action.

In another case, Jodi Denise White, who spent 31 hours in jail in January 2013, sued the county last month, alleging false arrest, false imprisonment and an invasion of privacy.

She too, asked for $50,000.

The county's law department, though, isn't budging and has now provided a glimpse into how its attorneys plan to defend what could turn into a series of lawsuits.

In a motion to dismiss filed Jan. 28, Knox County Deputy Law Director David Buuck says the county is immune to White's claims under Tennessee's Government Tort Liability Act and established case law.

Buuck, who declined to comment Friday, noted that court officers "enjoy absolute immunity from suit on claims arising out of the performance of judicial or quasi-judicial functions," so that they are able "to act freely without the threat of a lawsuit."

"The issuance of an arrest warrant is a truly judicial act," Buuck wrote. "Because it is, a court clerk is entitled to absolute immunity from a lawsuit connected with the issuance of a warrant."

Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey and her office have been under fire for months now after a WBIR Channel 10 investigation detailed problems inside her office that appear tied to poor training, outdated information, and her refusal to cooperate with other county departments.

Her workers often enter the wrong data into the records management system, lose crucial paperwork and provide defendants, prosecutors, and authorities with bad information, a 10News analysis found.

As a result, the errors that have led to wrongful arrests, cases set aside due to errors and resident temporarily losing their right to vote.

COMPLAINT: Jodi White's lawsuit against the county

DEFENSE: County files motion to dismiss

White, who was featured in one of the stories, initially pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in March 2011. A year later she completed the terms of her probation, yet learned that a warrants was still showing as pending in the county's criminal database.

Records show that she talked with officials in the General Sessions Court and was assured that the warrant was dismissed.

Then in January 2013, she was stopped in Lenoir City for speeding. She was released on a $500 cash bond, which officials returned to her the next day when they let her go.

However, her car was towed when she was taken into custody for 31 hours. That cost her more than $150, which she never got back, she previously told WBIR.

Her attorney, William Taylor, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

A date has not been set to hear her case, but at least one local attorney who specializes in civil rights violations and often represents government entities against lawsuits said the county has a "very well-reasoned" and "good and valid" defense.

"The Governmental Tort Liability Act affirms that all county governmental entities are immune from suit involving injuries that relate of the operation of governmental functions," said Jonathan Taylor with Taylor & Knight. "It allows county governments to operate and continue to perform the kind of functions that are necessary to government work without the fear of suit from citizens."

He added: "There was always this judicial immunity for judges who were integral to the process of justice . . . (but) the exception of judicial immunity has been extended now to deputy clerks, clerks, criminal court clerks."

Taylor said he expects the county's circuit court to eventually dismiss White's complains, adding the "only way around it now" would be to amend the original complaint and allege a civil rights violation under section 1983 of the federal civil rights act – the primary means of enforcing all constitutional rights – and allow Knox County to remove it to federal court.

"All bets are off at that point," he said. "It allows you to get in to different claims – failure to train, failure to supervise.

"All of these are basic civil rights that we have as citizens of the United States and the federal Constitution protects in this instance false arrest and your rights to essentially operate as a citizen of the United States to drive freely on the streets of Tennessee without begin subjected to arrest," he added.

However, Taylor suggested that at this point it would be up to the county to agree to remove the case and it's not something he expects would happen, since the county would lose many of its legal protections.


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