Attorneys for Avery Gray, the mother of a 14-year-old girl whose wrists reportedly needed splints after she was pulled out from behind the wheel of a running vehicle and arrested last year, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Chattanooga, its police department and a car dealership, along with its employees.
The incident took place in June 2018 when an M&R Motors car repossession agent, Walter Clay, was trying to take possession of Gray's vehicle that was parked outside the Hamilton County Jail. He couldn't, though, because Gray's daughter was sitting in the car. So he asked a Chattanooga Police Department officer, only identified as "J. Wright" in the lawsuit, for help.
At the time, the police department withheld the officer's name because "numerous threats" had been made against him and his family, and the officer's name could not be confirmed via court records because juvenile records, for the most part, are not public.
The lawsuit alleges the repossession of the vehicle was unlawful and, because it was carried out with the assistance of a police officer, was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which ensures "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."
The lawsuit also claims the actions of the officer and others are considered a breach of the peace that deprived Gray and her daughter of their property and liberty without due process, something they allegedly conspired to do. It claims the girl's arrest constitutes false imprisonment, and that Wright assaulted her and committed battery.
The city attorney's office did not return a request for comment, and the Chattanooga Police Department declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. But at the time of the incident, police Chief David Roddy said the force used by the officer was in compliance with the department's use of force policy and training.
"Force used by officers can be controversial, but it is also needed in certain situations when safety of the individuals involved and the public at-large are at stake," Roddy said in a statement on June 27, 2018.
Gray had quit making payments on the car because, after buying it two months earlier, she discovered it "had serious problems," according to the lawsuit. Her attorney, Stephen Duggins, argues those problems were not disclosed at the time of sale, and the company had stated the vehicle was "in good operating condition." Gray had tried to take the car back, but the company refused.
Then June 25, 2018, came, and Gray's daughter was sitting in the driver's seat while Gray left for a short time. That is when Clay approached the car and then asked Wright, who was in his patrol vehicle parked nearby, for help in repossessing it, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit, however, states Clay had no legal basis to ask Wright for help in repossessing the car because Clay did not have a court order and Wright didn't ask to see one.
Nevertheless, Wright went on to order the girl to get out of the vehicle and to hand the car keys to Clay, the lawsuit states.
Then, "as [the girl] was gathering her belongings out of the Car and avoiding any fast or abrupt movements in order to ensure that none of her actions were perceived as a threat, Officer Wright began losing his temper," the lawsuit states.
Wright then reached into the car, unlocked it, opened the door and "proceeded to physically yank [the girl] out of the Car even as she was attempting to comply with the order."
He then handed the vehicle's keys to Clay.
The incident was captured on video that was posted to Facebook. The police department then released the officer's body camera footage in response to the social media post.
At the time of the incident, the Chattanooga Police Department issued a statement, saying, "The officer determined at that time that an unlicensed, 14-year-old behind the wheel of a running vehicle in a heavily trafficked area of town created a significant concern for the safety of that juvenile, others in the vicinity, and the public at-large."
Eventually, the girl was handcuffed and taken to the juvenile detention center.
But the handcuffs were so tightly secured, "her wrists ... were swollen, red and beginning to turn blue," the lawsuit states.
Detention center staff removed the cuffs and told Gray she "needed to get [her daughter] to the children's hospital as soon as possible," according to the lawsuit.
At the hospital, an emergency room doctor told Gray that her daughter's condition was "completely unacceptable for a child," the lawsuit states.
Both the girl's wrists were set in splints, photos of which were posted to Facebook not long after.
An orthopedic surgeon told Gray her daughter could develop carpal tunnel as a result, according to the lawsuit.
More than four months later, Wright filed disorderly conduct charges against the girl in connection to the same incident, the lawsuit states.
Gray is asking for punitive damages "in an amount as determined appropriate by the jury," and for attorney fees and expenses to be reimbursed.
Gray later took her grievances about the arrest to the Chattanooga City Council.
"I pray you will do something about these police officers," she pleaded to council members.
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