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At least three lawsuits now have accused the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office of not responding to open records requests.

Two of the accusations are made in larger civil rights lawsuits and a third is lodged in its own open records suit.

The allegations come at a time when the county has been under scrutiny for destruction of records and allegedly stonewalling records requests. The sheriff's office also has been under fire for a "catastrophic data loss" that caused thousands of sheriff's office videos from dashboard cameras to disappear, something that potentially could jeopardize criminal and civil cases.

The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office did not return a request for comment Sunday.

 

AN ALLEGEDLY EDITED VIDEO

One of the lawsuits claims a man — 41-year-old Jason Grandy — was beaten so severely by corrections deputies that he needed surgery to repair a fractured jaw.

Grandy was arrested for public intoxication on Feb. 24, 2019. He didn't have any visible injuries to his jaw when he first got to the jail, according to the suit.

The lawsuit then details a jail security video that appears to "jump from scene to scene."

In one scene, a group of corrections officers are on top of Grandy, the lawsuit states. But the video then reportedly cuts to a different scene in which the officers are no longer on top of Grandy, but Grandy has been handcuffed.

Another scene allegedly shows a nurse approach Grandy. One second the nurse is almost next to Grandy, and the next second the nurse is behind the intake desk, the suit claims.

By the time Grandy was released, his jaw was swollen.

An incident report filed by the arresting officer mentions Grandy had blood in his ear but nothing about a swollen jaw, according to the lawsuit.

Grandy then reportedly went to a local hospital where he was found to have a "severely fractured jaw" and had to undergo surgery.

 

A DEADLY OFFICER-INVOLVED SHOOTING

Charles Bradley Payne, 42, was killed on April 9, 2019, after deputies were called to a home in the 9100 block of Broyles Drive in East Brainerd on reports of a "disorderly subject," the Times Free Press previously reported.

He and his mother were arguing when she asked him to leave her house, but he didn't want to leave, and according to the lawsuit his mother threatened to call police.

Three deputies arrived a short time later and found Charles Payne holding a baseball bat. According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Payne dropped the bat and brandished a knife, which is when a deputy shot him.

But Payne's family disputes that allegation.

In November of last year, the family sent a letter demanding that any video or audio recordings related to a deadly officer-involved shooting, as well as any 911 calls or reports, be preserved. They received no response, the lawsuit states.

Also in November, the family filed an open records request asking for the names of the deputies and other records pertaining to the event. That request was denied within a day, with county human resources director Carole Miller claiming an open investigation prevented her from releasing any records. Miller did not clarify whether the investigation was criminal in nature.

Requests for certain records are typically denied when there is an open criminal investigation because of Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure, which states that only the defendants can have access to the investigative file through the discovery process. In this case, the defendant was killed.

Also, a recent Tennessee Supreme Court decision states that public records that are non-investigative in nature and would normally be open to the public do not subsequently become exempt from public disclosure just because there is an active criminal investigation.

Because of that ruling, attorney Robin Flores argues that the information his client requested is not exempt from disclosure, and he pointed out that the sheriff's office did release the names of the deputies to the Times Free Press.

The newspaper, after it published the names of the involved deputies — Brandon Bennett, John Robbs and Daniel Rowell, — is the "sole source of the identities of the individual defendants," Flores wrote.

The county has still not responded to the records request, Flores noted, adding that "refusals to provide even the names of the deputies involved in the death of Deceased is an attempt to prevent the Plaintiff from bringing a lawsuit against the individuals who participated in the death of the Deceased."

 

AN OPEN RECORDS LAWSUIT

One of the accusers of now-criminally indicted former deputy Daniel Wilkey filed a suit last month accusing the county of failing to respond to multiple records requests for documents pertaining to the 26-year-old former deputy's time with the department. The man also has filed a class-action lawsuit against Wilkey and the county.

The Times Free Press is not identifying the man because of the alleged nature of his encounters with Wilkey.

He claims Wilkey fondled him during a traffic stop in the Soddy-Daisy area on March 30, 2019.

Wilkey ordered the man out of the car and handcuffed him, the class-action suit states. After initially patting him down, Wilkey then "put his hand down [inside] the front of [the man's] trousers and inappropriately touched [his] genitals."

The man's attorney, John Cavett, requested on Nov. 21, 2019, a list of records regarding Wilkey's personnel record and any records of who would have signed off on any dash camera footage or complaints. But Cavett claimed the request wasn't fulfilled, the Times Free Press reported previously.

Under state law, a records custodian must respond to a records request within seven business days by either fulfilling the request, providing an estimate for when the request will be fulfilled or denying the request based on a specific exemption from state law.

About an hour after being contacted by the Times Free Press last month, human resources director Miller emailed Cavett saying the requested records were available for him to inspect.

The Times Free Press requested the same documents and has yet to hear from Miller, despite the records already having been compiled.

After the Times Free Press reported that thousands of dash camera videos were lost during a server failure, both Cavett and Flores filed motions in federal court asking a judge to order the county to preserve all electronic evidence and to allow the plaintiffs to conduct a forensic examination of all technology involved with preserving dash camera videos.

Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger last week demanded that the sheriff's office keep the server "non-accessible" until a hearing later this month, Times Free Press news partner WRCB-TV reported.

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

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