Category Archives: Criminal Law

Estate of Jocques Clemmons Secures Return of Phone; Deletion of Social Media Data Procured by MNPD

In an important win against investigative abuse, the Estate of Jocques Clemmons has secured all of the relief that it sought in a February 9, 2018 lawsuit concerning the Metro Nashville Police Department’s efforts to search Mr. Clemmons’ cell phone and social media accounts following his death.  The MNPD and MNPD Detective Danny Satterfield—who procured the warrants at issue and was similarly sued by Mr. Clemmons’ estate—also formally acknowledged that the search warrants that were sought against Mr. Clemmons could “be construed as overbroad.”

Following a settlement agreement reached on March 2nd, the MNPD agreed to relinquish Mr. Clemmons’ cell phone to his mother, which it had refused to turn over for more than a year following Mr. Clemmons’ death.  Yesterday, in keeping with the parties’ settlement agreement, the MNPD also filed a Declaration of Compliance certifying that the defendants had “administratively expunged and destroyed all data in their possession retrieved from Jocques Clemmons’ Instagram account and Facebook account.”  Accordingly, earlier this morning, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee issued a Final Order terminating the case.

The lawsuit arose out of a fatal officer-involved shooting on February 2017, during which Mr. Clemmons was shot in the back.  Days after Mr. Clemmons was killed, MNPD Detective Danny Satterfield filed three search warrant applications seeking “any/all data contained and/or stored within” Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook account, Instagram account, and cell phone.  Without any stated time or content limitation whatsoever, the warrants specifically sought Mr. Clemmons’ “pictures, videos, audio, text messages, incoming/outgoing Facebook Messanger [sic] conversations, voicemails, chat logs, contact information, call logs, emails, internet data, Wi-Fi data, IP address(es), search history, maps, locations, GPS data, drafts, deleted files/folders, etc.”

Officer Satterfield’s search warrant applications stated under oath that he had probable cause to believe that all of the data on Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts and cell phone contained “certain evidence” of a crime committed by Mr. Clemmons, who was by then deceased and not subject to arrest.  A month later, however, the MNPD acknowledged that whether Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts or cell phone contained any relevant evidence was actually “unknown.”   Disturbingly, such efforts to rifle through decedents’ social media accounts and cell phones in search of damaging information after controversial officer-involved shootings are not isolated.

“While we remain disappointed that these three wildly overbroad and comically unconstitutional search warrants were ever sought or approved in the first place, we appreciate that the MNPD has now taken the steps necessary to remedy those prior illegalities,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who represented Mr. Clemmons’ estate. “The Clemmons family is very happy to have back his phone—which contains several cherished family photos—and it is satisfied that the MNPD has now destroyed the data that it unlawfully obtained from Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts following his death.”

Selected Case Documents:

Clemmons Complaint & Exhibits (MNPD Social Media Warrants)

*Settlement Agreement

Defendants’ Declaration of Compliance

Final Order

Selected Media Coverage:

-Patch: After A Year, Nashville Police Return Jocques Clemmons’ Phone

-The Tennessean: More than a year after Jocques Clemmons died, police returned his phone to family

-News Channel 5: Metro Police Return Clemmons’ Cell Phone After Lawsuit Is Filed

-The Tennessean: A year after Jocques Clemmons’ death, police still have his phone. His family wants it back.

-The Nashville Scene: It’s Been One Year Since the Jocques Clemmons Shooting

-The Nashville Scene: Why Does MNPD Need to Search Jocques Clemmons’ Social Media?

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Estate of Jocques Clemmons Files Suit Over Social Media Search Warrants

Nashville, TN—The Estate of Jocques Scott Clemmons, the Nashville man who was fatally shot in the back by Metro Nashville Police Officer Joshua Lippert on February 10, 2017, has filed a lawsuit regarding the MNPD’s successful efforts to search his social media accounts following his death.

Days after Mr. Clemmons was killed, MNPD Officer Danny Satterfield filed three separate search warrant applications seeking “any/all data contained and/or stored within” Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook account, Instagram account, and cellular telephone.  Without any stated time or content limitation whatsoever, the warrants specifically sought Mr. Clemmons’ “pictures, videos, audio, text messages, incoming/outgoing Facebook Messanger [sic] conversations, voicemails, chat logs, contact information, call logs, emails, internet data, Wi-Fi data, IP address(es), search history, maps, locations, GPS data, drafts, deleted files/folders, etc.”  Officer Satterfield also sought nearly identical information from Mr. Clemmons’ Instagram account and cell phone.

Mr. Clemmons was already deceased at the time of Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications.  Accordingly, he was not subject to arrest for any crime.  Even so, Officer Satterfield claimed that the warrants were necessary to investigate an “aggravated assault” that Mr. Clemmons had committed against Officer Lippert.  Notably, however, video released prior to Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications had already revealed that the altercation that Officer Satterfield claimed to be investigating had not occurred.

Officer Satterfield’s warrant applications stated under oath that he had probable cause to believe that all of the data on Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts and cell phone contained evidence of Mr. Clemmons’ supposed aggravated assault against Officer Lippert.  In a subsequent statement, however, the MNPD acknowledged that whether Mr. Clemmons’ social media accounts or cell phone contained any relevant evidence was, in fact, “unknown.”  Based on the warrants’ lack of probable cause and several other constitutional deficiencies, Mr. Clemmons’ estate has filed suit seeking the return of all property seized as a result of Officer Satterfield’s defective search warrants.

“Mr. Clemmons’ Facebook and Instagram accounts had no conceivable bearing on the supposed crime that the MNPD claimed to be investigating, and Officer Satterfield’s comically unconstitutional warrant applications did not even bother to pretend that they did,” said Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Clemmons’ estate.  “Further, at the time that Officer Satterfield applied for the search warrants at issue, there was literally nobody on earth who was less likely to be arrested than Mr. Clemmons, who had been deceased for nearly a week.  These search warrants could not have been any less valid if they were written in crayon.”

“We hope that the Mayor and the MNPD will do right by Mr. Clemmons’ family by returning his cell phone and relinquishing whatever private information they pulled from his social media accounts in their effort to assassinate his character,” Horwitz added.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.  The plaintiff’s pleadings are copied below.

Plaintiff’s Complaint

MNPD Search Warrants and Search Warrant Applications


Selected Media Coverage

The Tennessean: A year after Jocques Clemmons’ death, police still have his phone. His family wants it back.

The Nashville Scene: It’s Been One Year Since the Jocques Clemmons Shooting

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Court Denies Relief in Eighth Amendment Challenge to School Zone Law

Nashville, Tennessee—In an order issued earlier this morning, Calvin Bryant, a former college student and beloved Hillsboro High School football star who received a 17-year mandatory minimum sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense, was denied sentencing relief by Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier.  The injustice of Mr. Bryant’s sentence garnered substantial local and national media attention, in part because his first-time, non-violent drug offense landed him a punishment that was more severe than the sentence that he would have received had he committed a violent crime like Rape or Second Degree murder.  Mr. Bryant—who has already served a decade in prison—had also received an outpouring of support from national advocacy groups and elected officials across the political spectrum.  Judge Dozier’s order denying him relief is accessible here.

“[I]n certain situations, such as with the Petitioner, a strict interpretation and enforcement of the Act can lead to sentences that courts and some members of the community would be hard-pressed to describe as fair.  This is especially true in Davidson County, where much of the county, and especially those areas with a higher concentration of minority populations, falls within the ambit of the Act,” the Court wrote in its Order.  However, “while the Court recognizes the Petitioner’s contention that his sentence is severe, the Court is of the opinion that the sentence is not so unjust as to give rise to an inference of gross disproportionality.  Thus, the Court must find the Petitioner’s sentence is constitutional,” the Order reads.

“While we respect the Court’s opinion, the fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales between adults more harshly than violent crimes like rape and murder cannot be justified under any rational sentencing scheme,” said Daniel Horwitz, Bryant’s attorney.  “We continue to believe that Mr. Bryant’s mandatory minimum sentence is grossly disproportionate based on applicable precedent, and I have every expectation that this opinion will ultimately be overturned.”

The Court’s order also expressly encourages Mr. Bryant and his many supporters to seek clemency from the Governor, which he will do while his appeal is pending.  “In order to secure Mr. Bryant’s early release from his grossly excessive sentence, I intend to petition Governor Haslam to commute Mr. Bryant’s first-time, non-violent drug offense to the “lesser” offense of rape,” Horwitz stated.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

-ScotBlog: Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

-Families Against Mandatory Minimums: Calvin Bryant: 17 Years for a First Offense/FAMM Reacts to Denial in Calvin Bryant’s Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  Judge agrees man’s 17-year sentence for dealing drugs is ‘harsh,’ but leaves it in place

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief




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Memphis Immigrant Wins Freedom Following U.S. Supreme Court Victory

By Daniel A. Horwitz:

Memphis, Tennessee—A Memphis man who secured a groundbreaking win before the U.S. Supreme Court this summer has officially won his freedom after a nearly nine-year legal battle to avoid being deported.  At the request of the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, the indictment against Mr. Lee was formally dismissed earlier this month, and his case is finally over.

In 2009, Mr. Jae Lee—a South Korean immigrant and successful Memphis restaurateur—was indicted for what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit described as “a relatively small-time drug offense.”  Thereafter, Mr. Lee pleaded guilty based on the advice of his defense attorney, who assured Mr. Lee that he would not be deported if he did so.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lee, his attorney’s advice was wrong, and spectacularly so.  Under federal immigration law, possession of ecstasy with intent to distribute is considered an “aggravated felony,” rendering Mr. Lee deportable immediately.  Consequently, when the Government initiated deportation proceedings against him, Mr. Lee sought to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting that his attorney had ineffectively assisted him by misadvising him about the consequences of pleading guilty.  Noting the strong evidence of his guilt, however, the District Court refused to allow Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision.

Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear Mr. Lee’s case in order to clarify the legal standard that governs ineffective assistance of counsel claims with respect to immigration-related plea bargaining.  In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court held that “Lee has adequately demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would have rejected the plea had he known that it would lead to mandatory deportation.”[1]  As a result, the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial instead.

The two dissenting Justices who ruled against Mr. Lee—Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito—held that Mr. Lee could not have been prejudiced by his attorney’s incompetent advice because Mr. Lee intended “to pursue a defense at trial with no reasonable chance of success.”[2]  As this author explained in his 2016 Harvard Latino Law Review article on the matter, however, this analysis is overly simplistic in several respects, and it significantly mischaracterizes the relevant prejudice inquiry.

Further, the notion that a weak defense necessarily means that a defendant will be convicted at trial is also quite simply wrong.  Several reasons support this conclusion, including the fact that the Government retains discretion not to take a case to trial at all for any reason.  As the above-mentioned article explains: “longstanding precedent entrusts to the Executive Branch’s ‘absolute discretion’ all decisions ‘not to prosecute or enforce, whether through civil or criminal process.’”  See Daniel A. Horwitz, Actually, Padilla Does Apply to Undocumented Defendants, 19 Harv. Latino L. Rev. 1, 8 (2016).  Accordingly, no matter how strong the evidence of a defendant’s guilt, all immigrants “are potentially eligible for relief from deportation [and from being criminally prosecuted at all] through the Executive Branch’s use of prosecutorial discretion.”

Mr. Lee’s case aptly proves this point.  After the Supreme Court permitted Mr. Lee to withdraw his guilty plea back in June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office filed a motion to dismiss the indictment against him.  No specific reason was offered to justify the Government’s decision, and because prosecutorial discretion is absolute, the Government is not obligated to provide one.  If anyone were looking for a reason to support the U.S. Attorney’s decision to drop the charges, however, one need look no further than the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Mr. Lee’s own case, which explained—in a ruling against him—that:

“[W]e should not be read as endorsing Lee’s impending deportation. It is unclear to us why it is in our national interests—much less the interests of justice—to exile a productive member of our society to a country he hasn’t lived in since childhood for committing a relatively small-time drug offense.”[3]

Ultimately, the Government’s decision to drop the case represents a tremendous win for Mr. Lee and his new lawyer, Mr. Patrick McNally, who was part of Mr. Lee’s Supreme Court team and secured the final dismissal of his indictment.  “[S]omeone finally understood the harm that his [first] lawyer’s advice caused him,” Mr. McNally told The Tennessean after the Supreme Court’s ruling in June.

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[1] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1961 (2017).

[2] Lee v. United States, 137 S. Ct. 1958, 1969 (2017) (Thomas, J., dissenting).

[3] Lee v. United States, 825 F.3d 311, 316–17 (6th Cir.), cert. granted, 137 S. Ct. 614 (2016), and rev’d and remanded, 137 S. Ct. 1958 (2017).

White County Judge Sam Benningfield Publicly Reprimanded for Instituting Inmate Sterilization Program, Retaliating Against Defendants

White County General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield, the architect of a controversial sterilization-for-jailtime program that has been compared to eugenics and is the subject of a pending federal lawsuit, has been publicly reprimanded by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct.  The Board’s Order, entered November 20, 2017 and accessible here, concludes that Judge Benningfield violated Code of Judicial Conduct Rule 1.1 (Compliance with the Law) and Rule 1.2 (Promoting Confidence in the Judiciary).

Benningfield was publicly reprimanded for two separate incidents, both of which are referenced in this federal lawsuit against him.

First, Benningfield was found to have retaliated against a defendant for registering a valid hearsay objection—threatening to withdraw the entire county’s house arrest program and inform other defendants in the county that “they can thank [her]” for what happened if she failed to do so.  The defendant’s attorney ultimately withdrew his hearsay objection following Judge Benningfield’s threat.

Second, and more prominently, Judge Benningfield was found to have instituted an illegal sterilization-for-jailtime program in White County, Tennessee.  “[Y]ou now realize that this [program] could unduly coerce inmates into undergoing a surgical procedure which would cause at least a temporary sterilization, and it was therefore improper,” the public reprimand states.

Last week, several inmates who sued over the program sought an immediate order terminating it on the basis that it was still pending and violates the 14th Amendment.  The public reprimand indicates that since the inmates’ most recent filing, Judge Benningfield has entered an order ending the program.

Notably, the Board of Judicial Conduct’s public reprimand stops short of recommending Judge Benningfield’s removal from office.  (Attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing the inmates who sued Judge Benningfield, has previously stated that “if Judge Benningfield will not resign his office, he should be removed.“)   If sterilizing inmates and retaliating against defendants who exercise their rights in his courtroom does not merit removal, however, one might reasonably wonder what a judge could do that would.  Selected documents from the lawsuit filed against Judge Benningfield are available below.

Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint for Injunctive and Declaratory Relief

May 15, 2017 Standing Order

July 26, 2017 Order Rescinding Previous Standing Order

Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss

Plaintiffs’ Motion to Certify State Law Claims

Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment

Selected media coverage about the case

-The Washington Post: Tennessee judge reprimanded for offering reduced jail time in exchange for sterilization

-The Tennessean: 2nd lawsuit challenges Tennessee county’s inmate birth control practice

-WSMV Channel 4: Judge under scrutiny for offering reduced sentences for vasectomies, birth control implants

-BBC News: ‘We were guinea pigs’: Jailed inmates agreed to birth control

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Eighth Amendment Challenge Filed Against Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone” Law

Nashville, Tennessee—A groundbreaking constitutional challenge has been filed regarding Tennessee’s “Drug Free School Zone Act,” a flawed but well-intentioned law that has recently come under fire by several conservative groups because it “ensnare[s] many individuals who fall outside of the scope and purpose of the law” and has resulted in significant collateral consequences that have been “passed on to taxpayers without any public safety returns.”  The law has long been a target of criminal justice reformers, who have argued that the severe, mandatory minimum penalties contemplated by Tennessee’s School Zone law fail to make appropriate distinctions between people who sell drugs to children and people who don’t.  A recent poll of 531 registered voters in Tennessee indicated that 84% of Tennesseans support reforming the law, including 90% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans.  Among other things, the law operates to punish first-time, non-violent drug offenders more severely than defendants who are convicted of violent crimes like Rape and Second Degree Murder.

Calvin Bryant is a beloved former Hillsboro High School football star, a former Tennessee State University student, and a former Tennessean employee.  A decade ago, witnesses described him as a “model citizen” who had “impeccable” character, was “loving toward his family,” “took a great interest in the people who live[d] in his neighborhood,” and was “very generous” with the elderly.  In 2008, however, Mr. Bryant was indicted for selling ecstasy pills to an aggressive government informant who had contacted him repeatedly, reminded Mr. Bryant that “he had helped raise him,” insisted that he needed drugs to earn money to feed his family, and pleaded with Mr. Bryant to help him get some.

The government’s informant had thirty-nine (39) separate convictions on his record in Davidson County alone at the time of the drug sales at issue—many of them violent felonies.  Even so, the informant was paid more than $1,000 in taxpayer money and avoided jailtime in exchange for helping secure Mr. Bryant’s conviction.  Mr. Bryant’s first trial ended in a hung jury after several jurors concluded that Mr. Bryant had been entrapped.  After his second trial, however, Mr. Bryant was convicted of selling drugs.

Even though it was a first-time, non-violent offense—Mr. Bryant had no other criminal history of any kind—because Mr. Bryant’s residence was located within 1,000 feet of a school, Mr. Bryant received a mandatory minimum sentence of seventeen (17) years in prison.  As a result, Mr. Bryant received a considerably longer sentence for committing a first-time, non-violent drug offense than he would have received if he had committed a severe, violent crime such as Rape, Second Degree Murder, Aggravated Robbery, Aggravated Vehicular Homicide, or Attempted First Degree Murder.  Mr. Bryant has been incarcerated for the past decade.  He has at least six years in prison left to serve.

Given the extraordinary circumstances of his prosecution, Mr. Bryant has filed a novel constitutional challenge to the application of Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law to his case.  Notably, even the District Attorney who prosecuted Mr. Bryant has submitted an affidavit supporting his early release, stating that: “I fail to see how an additional six years of incarceration will improve Mr. Bryant’s amenability to correction or would be required to maintain public safety.  I additionally fail to see how his release at a time earlier than 2023—and after over nine years of incarceration—will deprecate the seriousness of the offenses for which he was convicted or significantly imperil public safety.”

Tennessee’s intensely punitive Drug Free School Zone law was designed to keep drugs away from children.  Nobody disputes that this is a laudable goal.  However, many people, including several elected officials and judges in Tennessee, have disputed whether the law was ever intended to apply to drug sales between adults inside an adult’s residence and outside of school hours—especially when a government informant has set up a drug transaction inside a school zone on purposeAs one Tennessee judge has explained, for example:

I simply do not believe that the Tennessee legislature intended the scope of the Act to include drugs brought into the protected school zone by law enforcement’s own design. This concept of luring, which commonly takes the form of an undercover sting operation, is inconsistent with the legislative intent of the Act and defeats the overall purpose of “creat[ing] a drug-free school zone to reduce the occurrence of illegal drug activity in and around school facilities in order to enhance the learning environment.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition paints a heartbreaking picture of a law that was never intended for cases like his but which applied to him anyway.  In Davidson County, he notes, so-called “drug free” zones “cover[] almost every habitable portion of Nashville and [nearly] all of its urban core.”  As a result, based solely on a prosecutor’s discretion, the law can be applied “to virtually every drug sale that takes place in Nashville.”  Even so, in the approximately two decades since the law was enacted, only 62 defendants have ever been punished with the school zone sentencing enhancement in Davidson County, which upgrades a defendant’s conviction by a full felony class and renders defendants ineligible for parole for decades.  Although, as a general matter, the law has been used sparingly to punish dangerous or repeat offenders, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that he has “the dubious distinction of being the only defendant in the history of this jurisdiction to receive Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432’s sentencing enhancement for a first-time offense.”

Mr. Bryant’s petition also highlights the fact that “Davidson County’s own Grand Jury has observed that the [District Attorney’s] previous application of the school zone enhancement was arbitrary and capricious,” having formerly been applied in a way that turned substantially on a defendant’s poverty.  It explains:

“[G]iven the location-based nature of the sentencing enhancement at issue, Mr. Bryant’s sentence was also enhanced dramatically based on his poverty alone.  If, for example, Mr. Bryant had lived in a wealthy, residentially-zoned suburb like Belle Meade, then he likely would have been eligible for release after serving just two years and five months in prison for the exact same conduct.  Because Mr. Bryant lived in the Edgehill Housing Projects, however, Mr. Bryant must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of at least fifteen (15) years before he even becomes eligible for parole.”

Further, Mr. Bryant’s petition notes that before the new District Attorney reformed his office’s use of the school zone sentencing enhancement in 2014, “Davidson County’s application of Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 was unmistakably race-based.”  “Although there is abundant evidence that people of all races in Nashville use and sell drugs at roughly equal rates,” his petition explains, fully “87% of defendants in this jurisdiction who received enhanced sentences under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 were people of color.”

Most importantly, however, Mr. Bryant notes that in the time since his conviction, Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-432 has been reformed both judicially and operationally to avoid precisely the type of strict liability penalty that applied in his case.  Consequently, if Mr. Bryant had committed the exact same offense today, then he would likely have been subject to a maximum sentence of between two and eight years in prison, rather than seventeen years.  Further, given his status as a first-time, non-violent offender, Mr. Bryant may well have avoided prison time at all.

Mr. Bryant has asked Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier to declare his sentence unconstitutional as applied to the unique circumstances of Mr. Bryant’s case, arguing that these circumstances render his sentence excessive under both the Eighth Amendment and Article 1, Section 16 of the Tennessee Constitution.  Mr. Bryant has also petitioned Judge Dozier for release while he submits an application for a pardon or commutation.  More than a dozen supporters—including Mr. Bryant’s own prosecutor, local politicians, business owners, friends, family members, and civil rights activists—have also filed affidavits in support of Mr. Bryant’s early release.  A hearing on Mr. Bryant’s petition is set for December 15, 2017 in Davidson County Criminal Court, Division 1.

“The fact that Tennessee law punishes first-time, non-violent drug sales more harshly than rape and murder is insane,” said attorney Daniel Horwitz, who is representing Mr. Bryant.  “Mr. Bryant was a promising young college student and a pillar of his community at the time of his conviction, and he made a single mistake that has already cost him a full decade of his life behind bars.  Mr. Bryant has more than paid his debt to society, and he deserves to be released.  This is the most unfair sentence I have ever seen.”

Read Mr. Bryant’s Verified Petition for Sentencing Relief here.

Selected Media Coverage

-Patch:  Nashville Case Highlights Drug-Free School Zone Reform Efforts

-Reason: How a Drug-Free School Zone Sent a Tennessee College Student to Prison For 17 Years

-Nashville Scene:  Council Members Petition Judge Over Drug-Free School Zone Case

-The Tennessean:  He got 17 years for selling drugs near school. Now 12 Nashville officials are fighting on his behalf

Selected Case Filings

Calvin Bryant Petition for Sentencing Relief


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Eugenics is Illegal

By Daniel A. Horwitz

On Wednesday evening, News Channel 5 broke the unspeakable outrage that a judge in White County, Tennessee, had signed a standing order providing for a 30-day “reduction” in jailtime if an inmate submits to sterilization.  According to the report, 70 inmates have already accepted this “eugenics discount” in exchange for early release.  Somehow, each aspect of the story is even more shocking than the next.

To begin, General Sessions Judge Sam Benningfield—the mastermind behind White County’s backdoor eugenics program—defended his efforts without any apparent sense of shame, telling Channel 5’s Chris Conte that: “I hope to encourage [inmates] to take personal responsibility and give them a chance, when they do get out, to not to [sic] be burdened with children.”

Even worse, Judge Benningfield’s standing eugenics order has apparently been on file since May 15, 2017—meaning that an untold number of lawyers, judges, doctors, and law enforcement personnel have either acquiesced to it or simply turned a blind eye in the face of a policy that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court designates as a crime against humanity.

To be absolutely and unequivocally clear: eugenics is illegal.  In America, reproductive freedom is a fundamental constitutional right, and the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution forbids the government from treating people differently based on whether or not they choose to exercise their right to reproductive freedom.  Tennessee’s criminal code also contains several specifically-designated mitigating factors and enhancement factors that judges are permitted to consider during sentencing.  Whether a defendant has submitted to sterilization is not among them.

The framing of Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program as a “voluntary sentencing reduction” is also deeply troubling.  It is not.  Simply stated: In White County, Tennessee, any inmate who refuses to be sterilized is punished with an additional 30 days in jail.

Such a program is profoundly coercive—especially for defendants convicted of minor crimes who may avoid jail time entirely if they submit to sterilization.  Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system knows that this length of time is sufficient to send a person’s life into disarray, because an extra month in prison can and frequently does result in job loss, loss of one’s home, or loss of one’s children.  Of note, under Tennessee law, everyone is also at risk of being imprisoned for 30 days at any time for even the slightest traffic infraction based on law enforcement’s discretion.

In addition to its rank illegality and immorality, it goes without saying that using the coercive power of the state to promote sterilization also has severe potential for abuse.  As a historical matter, eugenics programs always target disfavored minorities—from Jews in Nazi Germany to black men in Tuskegee, Alabama.  Firmly in keeping with this tradition, Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is reserved for White County inmates and apparently targets those suffering from drug addiction.  In this regard, it is no less disgusting.

Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program is an outrage.  He need not serve on the bench any longer, and he need not keep his law degree any longer.  Infuriatingly, this also is not the first time that an officer of the Court who has been charged with upholding the law has implemented a (very recent) sterilization program in Tennessee—a fact that is similarly unconscionable in its own right.  If Tennessee’s administrators of the practice of law took a fraction of the effort that they’ve expended trying to prevent qualified immigrants from taking the bar exam and redirected it toward removing people like Judge Benningfield from the profession, perhaps further abuses like this would be avoided.

Compounding the outrage is that nobody has yet filed suit over Judge Benningfield’s eugenics program during the two months that it has been in effect.  Whether initiated by the ACLU, a public defender, or a private defense attorney, such a lawsuit needed to be filed yesterday.  If you or a client of yours is affected by White County’s eugenics program and you want assistance pursuing the case, please feel free to contact me at  I will gladly take the case pro bono and donate the proceeds to the Holocaust Museum and the Tuskegee History Center.  A program like this violates what the United States Supreme Court has declared to be “one of the basic civil rights of man,” and nobody—least of all the Bar—should tolerate it.

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It’s all fun and games until someone gets arrested: Predators fan charged for catfish toss

By Daniel Horwitz:

In an absolutely outrageous abuse of law enforcement authority, Pittsburgh police are celebrating the fact that they have just filed criminal charges against a Nashville Predators fan for tossing a catfish onto the ice during game one of the Stanley Cup finals.  Until the inevitable change of course—when law enforcement claims that this was all just an innocent misunderstanding that was really meant to be a joke—the culprit faces criminal prosecution for: (1) possessing instruments of crime (specifically: a catfish); (2) disorderly conduct (catfish throwing); and (3) disrupting meetings and processions (of a hockey game, for Chrissake, where throwing hats on the ice is, on appropriate occasions, part of the Fans’ Code of Conduct).

At the time, the fan’s successful execution of the beloved 14-year-old Nashville hockey tradition—originally inspired by Detroit Red Wings fans, who have been tossing octopuses on their home ice for more than half a century—was met with widespread merriment.  Local superstar Carrie Underwood, who also happens to be the wife of Predators Captain Mike Fisher, adoringly tweeted that the culprit was her “hero”—instantly generating agreement from 10,000 approving fans.  Sports Blog Nation called on hockey lovers to “embrace the catfish” after it inspired the Preds’ furious comeback from a 3-0 first period deficit.  Local Nashville politics writer Steven Hale correctly observed that the tosser “should not pay for a drink the rest of the series.”  In sum: with just one exception, every non-marine creature and non-PETA member in the Animal Kingdom who witnessed the stunt enjoyed it, and nobody (except the catfish) was hurt.

Unfortunately, that one exception happens to be the Pittsburgh Police Department, whose officers—in addition to carrying badges and guns—apparently have the world’s worst judgment and the sense of humor of a Columbian drug cartel.  The statutes that Jacob Waddell is currently accused of violating can be found here, here, and here, respectively.  His “possessing instruments of a crime” charge alone appears to carry up to five years in prison and a $10,000.00 fine.  Hilarious indeed.

Many have responded (appropriately) by mocking the Pittsburgh Police for their outrageousness here.  Fittingly, those trolling the department even include the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which published a photo of the offending “criminal instrument” on the ice along with the note that: “We’ve seen a lot of ‘instruments of crime’ over the years. Can’t honestly say we’ve seen a case with one of these.”  “Instrument of Crime” t-shirts emblazoned with a wriggling catfish have already popped up online, and several members of Nashville’s Metro Council are in the midst of drafting a resolution calling for Mr. Waddell to be pardoned.  Generally speaking, everyone’s having a good laugh at Pittsburgh’s expense, which its Police Department rightly deserves in spades.

Lost in much of the mockery, however, is the more serious significance of the Pittsburgh Police Department’s misconduct here.  There is no such thing as an insignificant criminal charge.  People who have a criminal record—a list of more than 65 million Americans that now includes at least one harmless catfish tosser—are all instantly subject to legal discrimination in employment, housing, and other areas of civic life.  If Mr. Waddell ever applies for a new job, for example, many employers will require him to check a box indicating that he has previously been charged with a crime, and few will ever give him the opportunity to explain why.  His mugshot will be a public record.  If he ever seeks to become an attorney or a member of another highly regulated profession, Tennessee’s famously unreasonable Board of Law Examiners could deny him the opportunity based on “lack of character and fitness” attributable to his charges.  Altogether, a state-by-state inventory cataloging the tens of thousands of collateral consequences that Mr. Waddell now faces in each state as a result of his criminal charges can be accessed here.

To be clear: Mr. Waddell did not actually possess anything that can reasonably be construed as an instrument of a crime.  The Pittsburgh Police also don’t initiate mass disorderly conduct arrests or “disrupting meetings and processions” arrests after Sidney Crosby hat tricks—indicating rather persuasively that they don’t traditionally consider throwing items onto the ice to be criminal acts.  So why, exactly, did this happen?  The answer, quite literally, is that Mr. Waddell was charged with multiple crimes because he was an opposing fan who was carrying out a harmless Predators fan tradition.  The fact that the Pittsburgh Police inexplicably thought their arrest would be so popular that they touted it in a press release makes this an especially pointed example of the kind of abuse and massive overcriminalization that has been creeping into American jurisdictions for decades.  Tragically, though, examples of such overcriminalization are far from isolated.

Ultimately, this situation will resolve itself because the poor PR that it has generated demands it.  After the smoke clears, though, the hapless officers of the Pittsburgh Police Department will continue to arrest people for harmless, minor crimes that serve to ruin their lives forever—and they will not be alone in doing so.  And that, unfortunately, is no laughing matter.

Update 1: The Mayor of Pittsburgh has released a statement making light of the situation as well.  It reads: “This has turned into a whale of a story.  From my perch, I agree with Mayor Barry that we shouldn’t be baited into interfering with this fish tale, but if the charges eventually make their way to a judge I hope the predatory catfish hurler who got the hook last night is simply sentenced to community service, perhaps cleaning fish at Wholey’s.”

Update 2: The Pittsburgh District Attorney has dropped all charges.  From The Tennessean: “‘Having reviewed the affidavit involving Mr. Waddell as well as the television coverage of the incident, District Attorney Zappala has made the determination that the actions of Mr. Waddell do not rise to the level of criminal charges,’ a statement from Allegheny County District Attorney spokesman Mike Manko reads.”

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Jason Bryant Statement on Recent Coverage Regarding Lillelid Murders

In the weeks leading up to a scheduled hearing on her petition for resentencing, Ms. Karen Howell—one of the co-defendants who pleaded guilty to the Lillelid murders—along with her co-defendant, Ms. Natasha Cornett, released a pair of lengthy, self-serving statements that several media outlets have since published unedited and without verification.  The Greene County District Attorney’s Office and its agents have since responded to those statements with statements to the media of their own.

Jason Bryant, the then-14-year-old child who has also filed a petition for resentencing on account of his being a juvenile at the time of his offense, has not sought to comment publicly on the case.  However, in response to the recent, prejudicial coverage relating to his upcoming proceedings, Daniel Horwitz, lead counsel for Jason Bryant, has released the following statement on Mr. Bryant’s behalf:


My heart breaks for the Lillelid family, which suffered what can only be described as a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.  It is, however, highly inappropriate for Karen Howell, Natasha Cornett, the Greene County District Attorney’s Office, or any other party involved in this case to attempt to litigate disputed legal issues through the media.  Those attempts have seriously prejudiced Jason Bryant’s right to a fair proceeding, and they will likely necessitate a change of venue when his hearing takes place.

Although Rule 3.6(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct strongly counsels against public comment in cases like this, Rule 3.6(c) includes an exception permitting attorneys to make public statements when it becomes necessary to correct a misimpression in the public record due to “the substantial undue prejudicial effect of recent publicity not initiated by the lawyer or the lawyer’s client.”  Consequently, the purpose of this statement is to correct three such misimpressions.

First, Mr. Bryant did not shoot anyone, and no jury has ever determined that he did.

Second, former District Attorney General Berkeley Bell’s statement that “the co-defendants blamed the shooting on Bryant because he was the youngest of the group” is accurate, as is his statement that “Bryant wasn’t part of the group.”  In contrast, Karen Howell’s and Natasha Cornett’s self-serving statements assigning Jason Bryant the blame for the Lillelids’ murders are not.  When Jason Bryant’s adult co-defendants discovered that Mr. Bryant—who was the only outsider to the otherwise closely-knit group, and who was also the youngest member of the group by far—was actually a juvenile who had pretended to be significantly older than he was, one of his adult co-defendants instructed him that he had to take responsibility for the Lillelids’ slayings.  That individual then pointed a gun at Mr. Bryant, shot him in the hand, and threatened to kill him if he did not.  Mr. Bryant still has visible scars from this event where the bullet went through his hand and entered his leg.

Third, Mr. Bryant was threatened and coerced into joining the group plea bargain to life without the possibility of parole against his will and against his clear legal interests.  Jason Bryant was just a fourteen-year-old child at the time of the Lillelids’ murders, and thus, he was not eligible for the death penalty on account of his being a juvenile.  As such, Mr. Bryant gained nothing from accepting a group plea bargain to a life sentence without the possibility of parole, which served only to spare his adult co-defendants the death penalty.

It is our position that these facts and the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Eighth Amendment jurisprudence establishing that it is nearly categorically unconstitutional to sentence juveniles to life without the possibility of parole entitle Mr. Bryant to a new sentencing hearing.  These issues, however, must be decided in a court of law, rather than in the court of public opinion.  Accordingly, this will be Mr. Bryant’s first and only public statement on this case.  We ask that the parties and the media respect the judicial process and refrain from further prejudicing Mr. Bryant’s right to a fair proceeding going forward.



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Grading Nashville Policymakers on Criminal Justice Reform: A Report Card

By Daniel Horwitz:

As voters and thought leaders of all political stripes move toward consensus that the American experiment with mass incarceration has failed, bipartisan coalitions aimed at reforming the criminal justice system have emerged in cities and states across the nation.  The localized nature of this movement is hardly a surprise, given that – as the Washington Post has noted – “most criminal-justice policy happens at the state and local level.”  In addition to the fact that state and local prisons and jails account for the overwhelming majority of the incarcerated population, reform of any kind generally begins at lower levels of government before coming to pass in the (in)famously deliberate halls of the United States Congress.

Nashville, for its part, is no stranger to the influences of the criminal justice reform movement, as indicated by the recently-announced partnership on criminal justice reform between the ACLU, the Beacon Center, the Chamber of Commerce, and Goodwill Industries.  However, perhaps the most telling evidence that voters are beginning to demand sensible criminal justice policies is that policymakers have begun to campaign on them.  For example, in recent election cycles, Metro Councilmembers, the District Attorney, and the Mayor have all advanced platforms specifically dedicated to criminal justice reform in an attempt to curry favor with an eager electorate.  This report card attempts to grade these officials’ performances since taking office based on their campaign commitments.

1. The Metro Council:  C

Since Nashville’s 40-member Metro Council took office in 2015, few would argue that criminal justice reform has been a centerpiece of its agenda.  A notable exception to that, however, was the Council’s successful and resoundingly popular push to help steer low-level marijuana offenders away from the criminal justice system. Rather than having marijuana users arrested and prosecuted, the first-of-its-kind bill, spearheaded by District 35 Council Member Dave Rosenberg, empowers law enforcement to issue offenders civil fines or require community service instead.  (Note: contrary to a a misguided opinion by the Attorney General’s office, police officers and prosecutors have always enjoyed discretion not to pursue charges at all, and the bill does not constrain law enforcement or conflict with still-applicable state law in any way.)  The Council’s discretionary decriminalization bill was also supplemented by laudable efforts to track officers’ use of their newfound discretion for the purpose of “prevent[ing] potential bias from playing out with the new law.”

All-in-all, however, Metro Council Members have largely devoted their attention elsewhere.  This reality is disappointing, since the consequences of criminal justice policy are absolutely devastating to those affected by it.  Additionally, voting to militarize the local police force through a supplemental purchase of $1 million in ballistic armor (drawn from a reserve fund) while appropriating a fraction of that amount to fund critical programs like Legal Aid represents a disappointing reflection of the city’s criminal justice priorities.

Individual Council Members who are due credit for taking the lead on criminal justice reform efforts and attempting to make them a priority include Dave Rosenberg (District 35), Freddie O’Connell (District 19), Fabian Bedne (District 31), and Bob Mendes (At-Large).  Overall, however, the Metro Council gets a C.

2.  The District Attorney:  B+

In 2014, Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk campaigned for office under the slogan that he knew “the difference between a bad person and a good kid in trouble.”  Since then, local media coverage of his tenure has largely been dominated by hiring and firing decisions, disputes about the ethics of a release-dismissal agreement and a pension arrangement, and other matters unrelated to substantive criminal justice policy.  Lost amid the coverage, however, has been any meaningful assessment of Funk’s substantive criminal justice reform efforts, which are significant.

As Nashville Scene criminal justice writer and Washington Post contributor Steven Hale has written, Funk represents “an example of a politician who actually kept the promises he made while rolling through the neighborhood during the campaign.”  Significantly, many of his promises were also specific and measurable.  To explore two examples, during his campaign, Funk detailed his views on driver’s license charges and Drug Free School Zone penalty enhancements – two critical issues affecting thousands of prosecutions – as follows:

  1. “Good public policy demands that all drivers are licensed. Everyone drives. When policy creates barriers to keeping a license, other problems are created. For one, unlicensed drivers don’t have insurance, and if a wreck happens, we want the at fault driver to have insurance. Another issue is safety of police officers who pull over a motorist. If that motorist is licensed, the officer knows who has been stopped and their history. For these reasons and others, we should be helping people obtain and keep driver’s licenses.
  1. “I will work with the legislature to tighten the language of the school zone law so that it protects schools and children without causing widespread incarceration beyond the substantial punishments already on the books for narcotics offenses. Assistant DAs will enforce the law but use prosecutorial discretion to seek fairness and justice.

After taking office, Funk immediately made good on both of these promises and several others, such as increasing diversity in the District Attorney’s office (the DA’s office is now several times more diverse than it has been at any point it its history).  He also took substantial heat for doing so.  With respect to (mostly) doing away with criminally prosecuting people who lack driver’s licenses, for example, Funk was harshly criticized by Nancy Amons of Channel 4 News for failing to seek jail time as a matter of course.  In response, this author (and others) vigorously defended the move as a laudable reform that keeps families together, saves money, and minimizes the consequences of a law that literally fabricates criminality, punishes poverty, and operates only a single step removed from a debtor’s prison.

Funk also implemented a top-down office policy of pursuing school zone enhancements only when drugs are actually sold to kids or on school property.  This little-noticed reform, too, carries enormous importance.  Because the overwhelming majority of Nashville qualifies as a “school zone,” and because the law applies broadly even to sales that take place between adults on the highway at 2:00AM during summer break, the law could technically apply to almost every drug sale, thereby dramatically increasing potential penalties for nearly all non-violent drug offenses.  Prior abuse of the school zone enhancement was used coercively to influence plea bargaining, and it resulted in many spectacularly long sentences for non-violent drug offenders who refused to plead guilty.  Significantly, the law also generated outrageous racial disparities.  For example, although white people are statistically more likely to deal drugs, nearly 90% of defendants who were punished with the school zone enhancement in Nashville were people of color, and many received decades-long sentences for first-time, non-violent drug offenses.  Funk’s reform on the use of the Drug Free School Zone enhancement eliminated the worst of these abuses overnight.

The overall culture of the DA’s office has also undergone a dramatic makeover during Funk’s administration, receiving commendations from a defense bar that was previously accustomed to walking into what often felt like a warzone.  Although some prosecutors definitely missed the memo, and although there’s certainly still room for improvement, speaking personally, the author and many others have also found the Funk administration as a whole to be accessible, reasonable, and not unduly committed to bringing the full force of the law down on anyone and everyone without reason.  Funk’s personal support for causes like improving expungement access and ensuring LGBT equality within the criminal justice system are similarly praiseworthy, though his prosecutors don’t always adhere to those views.  While the author would love to see movement on issues like bail reform and a wrongful conviction integrity unit going forward, to date, the District Attorney’s office receives a B+.

3.  The Mayor:  D-

If promises were policy, Mayor Barry would receive the A+ on criminal justice reform that she campaigned on.  From ending the criminalization of homelessness, to mandating police body cameras, to improving expungement access, to taking the lead on marijuana decriminalization, to rolling out Metro ID cards in order to facilitate successful re-entry, to “waking up every day and being able to make a difference in someone’s life” who is being crushed by the weight of an unfeeling criminal justice system, criminal justice reform advocates unquestionably had their candidate in Megan Barry.  Unfortunately, however, promises are not policy, and the reality has not come even close to matching the rhetoric.

On criminalizing homelessness, Mayor Barry’s administration began by declaring that it did not “anticipate the need for arrests or criminal citations” for homeless people living in a tent-city style encampment at Fort Negley.  Unfortunately, however, it quickly arrived at “not ruling out arrest as an option” for those same people, forcibly disbanding the homeless encampment thereafter, and then in fact arresting some of its occupants in the process.  More recently, the Mayor’s office has inexplicably defended the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s recently-exposed policy of purchasing one-way tickets to bus homeless people – many of whom have mental illness – to other cities in an effort to solve Nashville’s homelessness problems.  To say the least, anti-homelessness advocates are not thrilled.

On police body cameras, the Mayor went from vocally supporting them as “really important” during her campaign to growing conspicuously silent about their previously-recognized merits during her first year in office.  More recently, under mounting pressure, she has re-committed to funding a police body camera program in next year’s budget.  Given that the program has not yet come to fruition, however, to date, progress remains non-existent, meaning that video footage is not available following use-of-force incidents.   Meanwhile, the Mayor’s office did take the lead on ensuring that $1 million was appropriated from a reserve fund to purchase military-grade ballistic armor for the Metro Nashville Police Department.  When it comes to criminal justice policy, the Mayor’s reticence to challenge her police chief on almost any issue even when confronted with evidence of racially discriminatory policing has also caused activists to question whether the MNPD is the proverbial tail wagging the dog.  Thus, suffice it to say that those concerned about preventing excessive or unnecessary use of force by law enforcement are not thrilled, either.

On expungement access, the Mayor’s pledge of support was similarly full-throated: “No individual should be unfairly penalized simply because they didn’t have the time, resources, or understanding of the law to have a charge expunged from their record,” she proclaimed.  In practice, however, while both Memphis and Chattanooga have committed resources to facilitating expungement access, Barry’s administration has done little more than deploy its legal department to oppose expungement access at virtually every opportunity.  This pledge, too, has not reflected reality, and expungement advocates are livid.

On marijuana decriminalization, the Mayor’s previous support also retrenched to such an extent that she “avoided taking a specific position” while an actual bill to decriminalize marijuana was coming down the pipeline (she ultimately signed it).  The silence was unexpected and curious, and even at the time, right-leaning Sheriff Daron Hall mustered the political courage to support it.  Thereafter, even after the reform passed, as activists called on the Mayor to use the power of her office ensure that the measure was actually implemented by the Metro Police Department, her office described such demands as “Nixonian.”  In sum: drug policy reform advocates have not been unduly impressed with the Mayor, either.

Additionally, efforts to develop municipal ID cards have fallen by the wayside entirely, another forgotten promise of a candidate who made many to the criminal justice reform community.  Fortunately, though, there has at least been recent movement on this issue from the federal government.  Whether Metro ID cards will become a reality here in Nashville under Mayor Barry’s administration, however, is anyone’s guess.

Taken together, evaluating her first year in office, the Mayor’s tenure with respect to criminal justice policy has been a frustrating disappointment.  Her recent commitment that Nashville will not become a jurisdiction that leverages its police force to enforce federal immigration law serves as a rare but significant bright spot.  Overall, however, the Mayor gets a D-.

For the sake of all affected – a population that includes all taxpayers and hundreds of thousands of people (and their families) in Nashville alone – let us all hope that our policymakers commit to meaningful reform in 2017.

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