TBI investigation into alleged body-cavity search by Hamilton County deputies back in district attorney's hands

This screenshot from dashcam footage provided by the Office of District Attorney General Neal Pinkston shows the arrest of a man and woman who were pulled over Wednesday in the Soddy-Daisy area.

UPDATE: Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said on Tuesday that his office is "beginning a detailed review of the independent investigative factual findings and how these findings relate to current state law defining criminal behavior."

It's not clear when the review will be complete, but an update may be provided within the next 30 days.

Once Pinkston's office has reviewed the case, they will either present it to a grand jury for potential indictment of the two involved deputies, or the case could be closed without charges. If presented to a grand jury, the jury could also decline to indict if it feels there is not enough evidence.

Original story:

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has finished its investigation into an alleged body-cavity search by Hamilton County sheriff's deputies and turned its findings over to the district attorney's office for review.

On July 12, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston asked the TBI to investigate the incident after dash camera footage of a traffic stop that was released the same day.

In the video, two white deputies, Daniel Wilkey and Bobby Brewer, are seen kicking, punching and stripping the pants off James Myron Mitchell, a 41-year-old black man, on July 10. The video shows them performing an apparent body-cavity search on Mitchell, who was a passenger in a vehicle, on the side of the road in Soddy-Daisy. He and the driver, Latisha Menifee, were handcuffed.

photo Neal Pinkston

Mitchell's attorney, Robin Flores, said medical records show Mitchell suffered anal fissures as a result of the encounter. Flores has previously pointed out that, according to state law and the sheriff's office own policy, only a physician or nurse can conduct a body-cavity search and only after getting either a search warrant or written consent, neither of which the deputies had.

The sheriff's office policy states that both strip searches and body-cavity searches must be conducted in a "controlled and private environment," such as a jail cell or detention area. Additionally, a strip search "only permits a visual inspection of the genitals and does not permit the search or probing of these cavities."

Now that the TBI has turned its investigation over to Pinkston's office for review, it's up to Pinkston to decide whether he will present the case to a grand jury to potentially indict the two deputies.

Pinkston, who previously said he was "somewhat disturbed at what [he] saw," has not returned a request for comment or confirmed whether he plans to present the case to a grand jury.

Sheriff Jim Hammond's office declined comment and referred any questions to the district attorney's office. The sheriff previously said, "We are going to be very transparent with how we move with this."

Flores, however, said he and his client hope "the state grand jury will indict on what clearly meets the statutory requirements of rape."

Even if Pinkston declines to present the case to a grand jury, federal agencies are still investigating. Pinkston has said he contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation in addition to the TBI. It's not clear where the federal investigation stands.

As for Mitchell, while deputies said they found small amounts of marijuana and crack cocaine in his possession, prosecutors have dismissed all of his charges stemming from the arrest, something that is not uncommon in an alleged brutality case.

After the incident, several members of Chattanooga's black community united to call for sheriff's office oversight and the immediate firing of Wilkey and Brewer, as well as Hammond's resignation.

On July 13, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County NAACP characterized the search as aggravated rape and pleaded for criminal accountability from law enforcement and unity from citizens in order to bring an end to police brutality against people of color.

Then on July 18, a room full of residents gathered at Orchard Knob Missionary Baptist Church to discuss a plan of action, including the creation of an oversight board, and many called for Hammond to step down and for the deputies to be fired.

And on July 22, a group of nearly 50 Hamilton County black pastors gathered in front of the sheriff's office. There, leaders said Hammond's support of his deputies, who are still under investigation, contributes to a corrupt culture that "continues to deny the basic humanity of the black citizens that he should be protecting."

Hammond has said he won't step down. But the 75-year-old has announced that he won't run for reelection in 2022, citing wishes to spend more time with his family.

He won't fire his deputies, either, he has said, without following the proper process.

Public employees facing termination possess legal protections that employees in the private sector don't have. While nothing prevents governments from quickly firing public employees, those employees then can sue them for monetary relief.

If a government entity wants to fire one of its employees, it first needs to give them an opportunity to explain their side of the story. And it has to give the employee written notice of what they're accused of doing wrong and arrange a hearing for them.

That is why the deputies have been placed on administrative paid leave while the internal investigation plays out. They have to be paid, because unpaid leave can be seen as punishment before being found guilty. And if the allegations are sustained, administrators won't be able to impose a real punishment (unpaid suspension).

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.