In July 2008, a fateful encounter between a pregnant Mexican immigrant and a Berry Hill police officer started what has become both a splinter in the foot of the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office and flagship case for local opponents of the federal 287(g) program.
In April, the federal district court ruled sheriff’s deputies had violated Villegas’ 14th Amendment right to due process. This summer, on Aug. 18, a jury awarded Villegas $200,000, well short of the more than $1.2 million her attorneys sought. Within 24 hours Metro had filed its notice of appeal. The case is currently pending before the appeals court. Meanwhile, Villegas’ immigration status remains on hold during the legal process.
The original federal complaint was filed in March 2009, relating to a July 3, 2008, traffic stop when a Berry Hill police officer arrested Villegas, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was nine months pregnant at the time, after she failed to produce a driver’s license during a traffic stop. She was later held in jail over the July 4 weekend on a 287(g) immigration hold, only to go into labor late in the evening on July 5.
The August 2011 trial for damages followed a ruling in April by U.S. District Court Judge William J. Haynes Jr., where he found that Davidson County Sheriff’s Office deputies violated Villegas’ civil rights when they shackled her to a hospital bed for much of the time leading up to and then after the birth of her child, and also for refusing to allow her the use of a breast pump upon her release from the hospital.
During the damages trial, friction between Haynes and Metro’s attorneys flared up at a few turns, with Haynes, grimacing from the bench, unable at times to hide his disdain for the arguments of Metro’s attorneys.
Haynes had previously ruled that neither Villegas’ immigration status nor the sheriff office’s liability should be discussed, but at various times during the damages trial Defense attorneys pushed the limits of what Haynes wanted to allow, asking Villegas on the witness stand if she feared being separated from her family, questions that hinted at her possible deportation.
In defense of the sheriff’s office, Metro attorneys argued that deputies were not responsible for what was actually causing Villegas’ ongoing pain and suffering. Instead, they said her distress and depression were the result of Villegas worrying about her arrest and the fear of being deported.
After the jury delivered the award to Villegas and Haynes excused the jurors, the judge addressed statements by Metro attorneys regarding possible lack of impartiality on his part by excluding certain testimony regarding illegal immigration and Villegas’ possible deportation during the August trial.
Haynes said he was “at a loss to understand some of these criticisms,” adding that his actions weren’t out of line compared to other similar cases. At one point while scolding Metro’s attorneys, Haynes told them they “mystified the court” with their conduct during the trial.
Metro seemed anxious to move on and get the case before another court, namely the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
For Sheriff Daron Hall and Metro, the size of the jury’s award mattered little.
Hall told reporters outside of the courtroom that Metro would have appealed Haynes’ ruling “whether it was a dollar or a million dollars.” The August trial, he said, was just a formality in that process.
Following the August ruling, immigration attorney Elliot Ozment filed a motion before the district court asking Haynes to grant Villegas U Nonimmigrant Status — better known as a “U Visa” — which grants temporary immigration status to witnesses or victims of crimes in the U.S., including unlawful criminal restraint and false imprisonment.
The granting of such a visa could be a long shot, though, as it appears the federal government intended them to aid in the prosecution of criminal cases — particularly those involving rape, murder, human trafficking and sexual assault, not a civil case like the one pressed on Villegas’ behalf. Haynes has yet to rule on the visa.
Three-and-a-half years after the traffic stop, the attorneys’ fees continue to add up. As counsel for both sides await word from the appeals court, Villegas remains in the country with her family as the legal circus around her plods along.
Notable crime and courts stories in 2011
Fraud: Finally arrested in Guatemala was fraudster Jeff Cassman, who bilked $1 million out of more than 20 investors (as first reported in The City Paper’s sister publication NashvillePost.com). On July 1, a federal judge sentenced Cassman to four years in prison and ordered him to pay $500,000 in restitution.
Defamation: At the end of June, the ears of media law devotees perked up when Davidson County General Sessions Judge Daniel Eisenstein sued WTVF-Channel 5 for reports the station ran that the judge claimed defamed him. A summary judgment dismissing the case has been appealed.
Shooting: More than a hundred rounds of ammunition flew through the air on July 11 along Albion Street, striking nearby homes and vehicles. Clarence Claybrooks was shot dead while two others were injured, including Finis Lewis, who at the time was free on bond awaiting trial on drug and weapons charges. He’d also been previously indicted in two separate murder cases that were dropped after possible witness intimidation. Lewis and two others involved that day were later sentenced to federal prison time.
Gibson: Another federal raid targeting Gibson Guitar Corp. and its wood importation practices led CEO Henry Juszkiewicz to strike up a band of supporters — including some in the instrument industry and some in politics — to protest the recently amended Lacey Act. Earlier this month, a hearing regarding a 2009 raid on Gibson was postponed until the end of January.