Wrong Guy Arrest Suit Narrowed in Tennessee

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     (CN) – A federal judge dismissed a number of claims contained in a Tennessee man’s mistaken arrest lawsuit last week, partly ruling in favor of a mid-state county.
     Kenneth Munson sued Wilson County, Tenn. Sheriff Robert Bryan and county detective Michael Barbee, among other defendants, for his January 2014 arrest. Munson says he was mistaken for another man with the same name who was wanted on theft charges.
     “During questioning, Mr. Munson told the Wilson County deputies that he had never before been to Wilson County or met the victim of the alleged car theft there, where a man by the name of Kenneth Munson was said to have stolen a car from a woman after discussing purchasing the vehicle from her and taking it for a test drive,” the ruling states. “He also told them that he had never lived in Lewisburg, Tennessee (in Marshall County) where a man by the name of Kenneth Munson was also said to have stolen a car, firearms, and other personal items from his roommates.”
     Munson was released on bail and tried to give Barbee evidence showing that he was not the theft suspect, but Barbee and the Wilson County Sheriff’s Department continued to prosecute him, according to the ruling.
     He was arrested in March 2014 for aggravated burglary in connection with the Lewisburg thefts while seated in a courtroom for the Wilson County incident. The charges against Munson in Wilson County were dropped in May 2014, and a judge ordered the state to expunge his record.
     U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger granted in part and denied in part the Wilson County defendants’ motion to dismiss. She dismissed civil rights claims against the county, ruling that Munson has not shown that mix-ups like the one resulting in his arrest are commonplace.
     “The complaint lacks any factual allegations regarding a Wilson County policy or custom of this type of misconduct. Allegations that Wilson County officers arrested Mr. Munson without adequate investigation do not equate to allegations that Wilson County has either a custom or policy of ‘arresting the wrong man,'” Trauger wrote. “Mr. Munson does not allege any specific facts to suggest that the misconduct giving rise to the alleged violation of his constitutional rights is part of a persistent pattern in Wilson County.”
     Munson’s claim of inadequate training was also thrown out because he did not allege specific facts to support the claim. An individual liability claim against Bryan was dismissed because an attempt to hold a county official liable for an employee’s conduct must be treated as an action against the county or against the supervisor only in their official capacity.
     In addition, Munson’s challenge under the Tennessee Code of Criminal Procedure was tossed by Trauger because the relevant law does not address the type of misconduct alleged in his lawsuit.
     “Mr. Munsons’ invocation of [Tennessee Code Annotated] 40-7-101 thus appears to be an attempt to shoehorn his Tennessee common law claims for false arrest and false imprisonment (which are contained separately in the complaint) into claims for statutory violations,” the judge wrote. “This construction of the Tennessee Code, however, is untenable, and any claims brought pursuant to 40-7-101 against the Wilson County defendants will be dismissed with prejudice.”
     However, Munson’s punitive damages claim against Barbee was not dismissed by the judge. She ruled that the detective may have acted recklessly by pursuing charges against Munson despite his claims that he could not have been connected to the crimes.
     “Mr. Munson alleges that Detective Barbee looked at exonerating evidence, continued the investigation anyway, and told Mr. Munson ‘I don’t owe you anything. We got our man, case closed.’ Construed in the light most favorable to Mr. Munson, these allegations could support a finding of recklessness,” Trauger wrote.
     The judge also ruled that a number of other claims against Bryan and Barbee, in their individual and official capacities and including punitive damages, will proceed.