Federal judge denies request to halt civil suit against embroiled Hamilton County deputies; hold granted in another case

Daniel Wilkey / Photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office
Daniel Wilkey / Photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

A federal judge last week blocked a request from two of four Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies at the center of a number of lawsuits to put the civil cases on hold while criminal investigations continue into their alleged misconduct. A second judge in another case temporarily granted a hold.

Deputy Daniel Wilkey was indicted Tuesday on 44 criminal charges, including 25 felonies in connection to an array of offenses he allegedly committed while on duty. The same day, his attorney, James Exum, filed new motions again asking for the civil cases to be put on hold now that his client has been criminally charged.

Wilkey is named in multiple lawsuits that detail several allegations of misconduct. Deputies Jacob Goforth, Bobby Brewer and Tyler McRae are also named in at least three of the lawsuits as having stood by and watched Wilkey reportedly violate citizens' rights on three separate occasions.

The three other deputies have not been criminally charged.

The deputies' attorneys, Exum and Gerald Tidwell, filed motions last month to halt the civil suits in order to protect their clients' constitutional right against self-incrimination. The attorneys used a number of news reports about the ongoing investigations as proof.

(Read more: Hamilton County sheriff's deputy indicted on 44 criminal charges)

photo Jacob Goforth / Staff photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

Judges have so far made a decision in only two cases: the alleged baptism of a woman during a February traffic stop and an alleged roadside body cavity search of a man in July.

In the case involving the alleged baptism, the woman claims Wilkey forced her into being baptized in Chickamauga Lake during a traffic stop on Feb. 6 while Goforth watched, according to a lawsuit. Wilkey reportedly told her she wouldn't have to face jail time for having the butt of a marijuana cigarette in her car if she agreed to the baptism.

In a response to the deputies' request, the woman's attorney, Robin Flores, argued that, at the time, there were no criminal charges and "there [was] no reliable indication" that criminal charges were in the works.

He urged the court to allow the case to move forward with "what [was] actually happening rather than [halt] and delay this matter," noting the passage of time can affect the preservation of evidence, including memories and witnesses.

Judge Harry Mattice agreed in an order filed last week, noting that, in that case, there was no evidence at the time that Wilkey or Goforth were definitively facing criminal charges in connection to the alleged baptism.

photo Bobby Brewer / Photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

"It is clear," he noted, citing case law, "that 'nothing in the Constitution requires a civil action to be [paused] in the face of a pending or impending criminal indictment' ... and 'there is no requirement that a civil proceeding be [paused] pending the outcome of criminal proceedings."

Therefore, "this Court ... has broad discretion in determining whether to [pause] this action," he added.

The overlap between the civil and alleged criminal case was "not apparent," Mattice wrote at the time. But the suggestion is that a criminal case would be based on the same allegations made in the civil suit.

He acknowledged reports that a criminal investigation had been confirmed in connection to the alleged body cavity search, but the alleged baptism is a separate case, and the nature of the investigation - whether internal or criminal - had not been confirmed.

"Defendants also downplay Plaintiff's interest in vindicating alleged violations of the rights guaranteed to her by the United States Constitution. It is not merely 'money' weighed against Defendant's unspecified rights," Mattice wrote. "As previously noted, Defendants do not have a right to defend against civil and criminal proceedings one at a time, nor do they have a general right to avoid the evidentiary implications of responsive pleadings."

photo Tyler McRae / Photo provided by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office

(Read more: Indictment reveals outline of Hamilton County deputy's alleged criminal offenses)

Though, now that criminal charges have been levied against Wilkey, Mattice may ultimately grant the hold.

In his order, acknowledged that the "initiation of a parallel criminal action may well tip the scales in the other direction, but at this time, the Court finds these factors weigh against [pausing] this case."

In the case involving the apparent cavity search, though, Chief Judge Pamela Reeves granted the request to halt the civil suit against Wilkey and Brewer. But only for 90 days.

"A temporary stay of the litigation in this case is prudent and fair to all parties given the ongoing criminal investigations," she wrote.

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

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