Hamilton County deputy involved in forced baptism asks for immunity

A Hamilton County deputy being sued for his role in the alleged forced baptism of a woman during a 2019 traffic stop says he didn’t violate any constitutional rights and is asking to be removed from the case.

Jacob Goforth, the deputy who recorded the Feb. 6, 2019, baptism of Shandle Riley by former Deputy Daniel Wilkey on Soddy Lake, filed an appeal asking the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to grant him immunity and remove him from the case altogether.

“We claim that he’s entitled to qualified immunity because he didn’t violate Riley’s constitutional rights,” Goforth’s attorney, Gerald Tidwell said in a telephone interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “It did not appear that she was coerced. She thanked him (Goforth) for being there and gave him a hug after.”

Qualified immunity protects a government official from lawsuits alleging that the official violated a person’s rights, only allowing lawsuits when officials violate a “clearly established” statutory or constitutional right, according to Cornell Law School.

“He reasonably believed it to be a voluntary baptism,” the Aug. 22 appeal filed by Tidwell said.

Tidwell said by phone, “She was not in custody. She had already been given a citation. We are not appealing on a factual basis. We are appealing on a legal basis. This is not a violation of constitutional rights. It would be impossible for Jacob Goforth to know” if he was violating Riley’s constitutional rights, according to Tidwell.

Goforth, who filmed the incident on his cellphone to “protect all persons present and document the event,” according to his deposition, said that one of the reasons he believed that Riley participated in the baptism voluntarily was because she arrived at Soddy Lake in her own vehicle.

Wilkey pulled Riley over in Soddy-Daisy shortly after 9 p.m. Feb. 6, 2019, according to a Sheriff’s Office affidavit. During the stop, Riley admitted to having a marijuana roach in her cigarette case.

Wilkey then offered to baptize Riley and issue a citation, in lieu of jail time for possession of an illegal substance, according to a deposition by Riley.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee found that “the threatening presence of several officers, the display of a weapon by an officer …” could have led Riley to believe that she had no other option but to be baptized, according to the April 7, 2022, memorandum granting parts of the lawsuit against Goforth.

Riley was found dead April 14, 2022, in her home in Soddy-Daisy.y The Hamilton County medical examiner later ruled the cause of death to be an accidental overdose.

Robin Flores, the attorney representing Riley’s estate in an ongoing lawsuit, said that Goforth’s beliefs that “the misdeeds of police are only (limited) to those of violence, or lying under oath, or to revoking of business permit misses the point,” in his counter motion to the immunity request filed Oct. 13.

Flores asked the Court of Appeals to dismiss Goforth’s appeal.

“To force Riley to engage in the bizarre conduct displayed in this appeal is an egregious act that defies logic,” the counter motion said.

Wilkey is scheduled to appear before Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman on Nov. 3 on 44 counts of criminal charges, including extortion, false imprisonment, assault, rape and stalking, involving traffic stop incidents.

Contact La Shawn Pagán at lpagan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow her on Twitter @LaShawnPagan.

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