A federal judge is ordering Rutherford County to stop detaining minors at its Juvenile Detention Center until they receive a detention hearing, in addition to raising questions about an "always arrest" policy.
In a case filed against Rutherford County, Murfreesboro and Officer Chrystal Templeton, Chief U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw is requiring the county to use a neutral factfinder to determine, before a child is held at the center, whether detention is allowed under state law. The judge also said the county could be liable for arresting juveniles instead of issuing citations or court summons.
The order is a victory for advocates who contend juveniles are being wrongfully held at the detention center.
"It means that Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center has to stop locking up so many kids for minor offenses. They've got to follow the law, and that's gonna mean a lot less kids are gonna get locked up," said Kyle Mothershead, a Nashville attorney representing five children detained at the center.
He added, "Not every child has been detained, but it looks like a very significant proportion of children have been detained."
Part of the question involves an "always arrest" policy put in effect 14 years ago by Juvenile Court Judge Donna Davenport, according to the order, in addition to the detention center's "filter system" used to determine whether the juveniles would be detained or released until a detention hearing by the Juvenile Court judge. Plaintiffs say both measures violate their clients' constitutional rights to due process.
Rutherford County Sheriff's Deputy Kerry Nelson explained the "always arrest" policy in federal court, saying once a judicial commissioner finds probable cause to issue a summons, a deputy must arrest the juvenile and transport the child to the detention center, according to the order.
"The juvenile is taken into custody, in the same way as an adult, whenever a 'summons' is issued if it is based on an alleged misdemeanor or felony, or even if it is for a 'status' offense. This policy remains in effect," the judge's order states. Status offenses involve minor situations such as skipping school or violating curfew.
The "always arrest" policy stems from a 2003 memorandum and order from Judge Davenport, later amended, which states "upon the arrest of any juvenile, the arresting officer shall transport the child to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Facility ..."
Though Davenport affirmed the order several times, most recently in February 2010, she testified she didn't intend for officers to arrest children on every summons, according to the order. Yet Nelson testified the sheriff's office interpreted the order as requiring arrests after approval of every juvenile petition.
Davenport and Murfreesboro Police Chief Karl Durr agreed in testimony the county's "always arrest" policy isn't required under state law, according to the order. State law allows citations and court summons to be issued without an arrest.
And Nelson concurred that sheriff's office policy states "the only way the juvenile will be taken into custody is if there is language on the petition that says pick up and hold, no other verbiage is acceptable." Still, Nelson testified the policy is enforced by arresting juveniles after a judicial commissioner approves a juvenile delinquency petition and issues a summons.
A detention center intake officer uses the "filter system" to decide whether to hold a juvenile on a minor charge such as a curfew violation. The juvenile is detained if deemed "unruly" or a "true threat to themselves or the community or if the juvenile has a probation violation or capias stemming from a status charge. They also could be held for driving under the influence.
One of the juveniles represented by Mothershead in the case was arrested at Oakland High School and detained for fighting, instead of being issued a summons. Another was arrested at home in September 2014 and held for two counts of assault, stalking and vandalism under $500.
Other children arrested included those from Hobgood Elementary School taken to the detention center in connection with a neighborhood fight in 2016.
Rutherford County Mayor Ernest Burgess declined to discuss specifics of the judge's order but said the county will follow it.
"There will be homework to determine exactly how we will go forward and what changes we may or may not have to make to our practices," Burgess said.
Mothershead said Murfreesboro Police Department started complying with state law in December 2016 and stopped arresting every child for a juvenile petition.