Records, officials unveil pattern of mistakes in the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk's Office, department head says everything OK
Andjuan Macon's trip to the City County Building was supposed to help him get a new job - not cost him one.
He just wanted a background check, a crucial step toward completing his certified nursing assistant program.
Instead, Knox County authorities on that February afternoon arrested him on what prosecutors say was an invalid warrant issued because officials didn't get the correct information.
"I kept trying to . . . tell them that all of this was a mistake, you know, you guys need to check your records," said Macon, 25. "They (weren't) listening and took me to jail."
The charge – failure to appear in court – was dismissed. But, it's the arrest, Macon said, that scares off prospective employers.
And he's not alone.
James Baker has a similar story. So, too, does Jodi Denise White, Johnny Edgar and Bradley Frederick, according to records. All found themselves in handcuffs, long after their fines were paid.
And there's more, officials said.
"We're arresting people who don't need to be arrested," said Carlton "Butch" Bryant, an attorney in the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
A WBIR Channel10 investigation discovered numerous instances of errors that originated from the Knox County Criminal Court Clerk's Office and led to residents wrongly taken into custody or kept in jail for days, sometimes weeks, past their scheduled release dates.
The records, obtained through the state's open records act, and interviews with top ranking county leaders suggest that the mistakes date back to at least July 2012 and occurred as recently as early September.
Officials say criminal court clerk's office workers often fail to update the county's Justice Information Management System, or JIMS, which attorneys, the sheriff's office, and the district attorney's office rely on for the latest information and to make decisions on whether a defendant is up-to-date on payments, court appearances, or community service.
Officials also say that the clerks sometimes fail to bring warrants to the judges to dismiss once the defendant completes his or her probationary requirements.
That means judges often issue invalid warrants and authorities act on them. It also means that some defendants have spent more time in jail than they should.
Knox County Commissioner Mike Hammond, who has been in contact with the district attorney's office and the sheriff's department, said he's concerned that the county is liable for the mistakes.
"This is not just one isolated thing," he said. "Apparently there have been a number of these instances, so, yes, it's an outrage. Citizens should not be worried about an officer knocking on their door, arresting them and taking them to the detention facility when they haven't done anything."
However, Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey, whose office includes Fourth Circuit Court, General Sessions and Criminal Court, doesn't see a systemic problem, but rather isolated mistakes few and far between.
McCroskey said her workers are properly trained and that one employee she says was responsible for some of the mistakes was let go.
"There's always a mistake if you're doing a job – nobody's perfect," she said. "And we try to catch them if there (have) been mistakes, correct them, acknowledge it and go on."
She added that "for the most part I have an excellent staff and I don't have to worry about them."
"We try to go over (all) paperwork that puts somebody in jail or lets somebody out of jail," she said. "We try to double check and make sure we've done the correct paperwork."
A number of defendants who were locked up, though, say no one "double checked" their paperwork.
'THEY TOOK ME TO JAIL'
Records show that Macon, 25, was placed on judicial diversion tied to a shoplifting charge in late 2010, and ordered to do 16 hours and pay court costs. He fulfilled his obligations in early 2012, but the criminal court clerk's office didn't record the information into JIMS, nor take the case to a judge to dismiss.
Instead, officials set a new court date for Macon, yet no notice went out, according to records. A warrant was issued after he didn't show up for court. Deputies eventually arrested him on Feb. 8 – a year after he paid his fines and finished community service – for "failure to appear in court" when he went to the Sheriff's Office in downtown Knoxville to get a background check.
"I went to the Sheriff's Department – thought I was going to get that – and they come out and say I have a warrant," Macon said. "And I'm like, OK, what's the warrant for because I'm lost."
He posted a $500 cash bond and was released a day later, and the entire case was dismissed in early March – after officials discovered the mistake, according to records.
Macon, who works in retail, said he needed a criminal background check to get into the certified nursing assistant program at Compassion Care Technical Center where he graduated in August. Recently, he said, a number of healthcare businesses turned him down, citing the recent arrest.
"(I hoped to) go up the scale a little bit and provide for my son," he said. "Now I can't because of that. I can't really even apply at a hospital or a nursing home because of that situation."
McCroskey says the District Attorney's Office and the judge are responsible for issuing the warrant that led to Macon's arrest. She denied that her employees didn't put the correct information into the system, and said that the data that she has and the information that other officials get should match.
However, when shown a record that Macon had completed his community service, she said the information she had "is not showing that."
She also said: "I'm sorry this happened to him. But with 75,000 warrants coming through . . . sessions court a year, one is going to slip through, and I'm sorry for that, but sometimes things happen."
McCroskey, though, agreed that deputies should not have picked up James Baker.
Authorities went to Baker's home on Sept. 5 to arrest him on what they believed to be "an active" warrant, initially stemming from a possession of marijuana charge, according to a sheriff's office memo drafted by the officers who arrested him.
Baker, 48, told them "he had already taken care of the matter," so officers called the criminal court clerk's office to check. They were told the warrant was good, so they took him to the Detention Center.
When they got to the jail, Chief Deputy Clerk Janice Norman, who works with McCroskey, "called records and stated that the warrant was invalid because it had been served, but the clerk's office failed to remove it from JIMS," according to the memo. Baker had actually been picked up four months earlier, but took care of the matter at the time.
Baker, who declined to comment in fear of retribution from county officials, was taken back to his house.
McCroskey blamed the sheriff's department for the mistake. Law enforcement, though, said it acted on the information provided to them by her office.
Officials with the Knox County Attorney General's Office, which also relies on JIMS, declined to comment for this story.
LOOKING FOR ANSWERS, SOLUTIONS
Officials now say they're left trying to figure out what to do. They'd like explanations and they want the problems fixed.
"You're talking about someone's life, their freedom . . . (and) if somebody's is convinced that they don't have a warrant out of them then they're going to be less likely to want to go to jail and that's an issue for the officer," said Knox County Commission Chairman Brad Anders, who is a 21-year veteran on the Knoxville Police Department.
Anders, a KPD lieutenant, also said the mistakes waste time.
"(As) an officer, I don't want to be tied up doing frivolous things," he said. "As a county commissioner, I want the Sheriff's Office to be as efficient as possible. And so wasting those resources is very critical."
Bryant, the Sheriff's Office attorney, said he's aware of "at least a dozen" cases in the past 18 months that resulted in someone wrongly taken into custody. He said that he's concerned that the problems "could result in civil litigation" since some defendants were "falsely imprisoned."
County Commissioner Hammond added that he wants "assurances that the problems have been taken care of and that we're not going to see these in the future."
"If it were one, yes, everybody makes mistakes, so you could look at it and say that this is just an error," he said. "But it's my understanding that there have been several. And if you've got several of these instances, then you have to look and say 'OK, this is a problem. Where is the problem? How is it going to be fixed?'"
McCroskey said she's willing to meet and talk about the matter with other officials.
"We're trying very hard not to let anything get through the cracks like that, but like I said it happens," she added.
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