CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Before appointing a forensic examiner or considering sanctions against a Tennessee county for the loss of months of dashboard-camera footage — possible evidence for nine lawsuits against a single sheriff’s deputy accused of a range of misconduct — a federal magistrate wants to ensure the footage is actually gone.
Calling the loss of the data a “front-burner item,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger in Eastern District of Tennessee said Tuesday that Hamilton County, which sits in the southeast corner of the state, had a duty to preserve evidence — including the dash-cam footage of the traffic stops in question.
At the center of the lost evidence is former Hamilton County Sheriff Deputy Daniel Wilkey. In December, the county district attorney filed 44 criminal charges against him that ranged from rape and sexual battery to reckless driving. Wilkey and Hamilton County also face nine civil lawsuits, including one class action.
The civil lawsuits, filed in state court, were transferred and consolidated in the federal court in Chattanooga. The lead lawsuit of the consolidated complaints alleges Wilkey stopped a woman’s 2016 Chrysler 300 in February 2019 and conducted a search that included orders that she pull out her bra and shake it and her shirt.
After he found part of a marijuana joint, Wilkey told the woman he felt that God wanted him to baptize her and he would only give her a criminal citation if she allowed him to do so. At a boat ramp and with another deputy as witness, Wilkey stripped to his boxers and submerged the woman in the cold winter water.
A few weeks ago, the woman’s attorney, Robin Flores, learned that the county admitted in another case in Tennessee state court that the server storing all the dash-cam footage the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office recorded from Oct. 25, 2018, to Jan. 23, 2020, suffered a software failure.
According to the county, all the footage is gone and unrecoverable.
“These videos are the most crucial evidence in this matter,” Flores wrote in a Feb. 28 motion asking the federal court to order the county to preserve electronic data.
But at a hearing Tuesday morning, attorneys for the county, the deputy and the people alleging the misconduct told the magistrate judge some dash-cam footage from the server does exist.
It was a hearing conducted in the age of the coronavirus: Steger said he was sitting in an empty courtroom while the attorneys and two reporters dialed into the hearing conducted over the phone. In keeping with local rules, Steger said the reporters could not record the proceedings.
Flores said more than 500 hours of dash-cam footage was obtained by the local district attorney. Another attorney mentioned he had seen the two-minute video of the baptism that Jacob Goforth, the deputy who allegedly witnessed the event, took on his cellphone – also in the possession of the DA.
Hamilton County attorney Sharon Milling told Steger the county saved 180 hours of dash-cam footage on a terabyte external hard drive, which was sitting at the sheriff’s office.
“We need to best, as possible, recreate all the footage that was lost from the server. And the only way to do that is to figure out what footage exists,” Steger said.
The magistrate judge told the county to file weekly status reports and preserve the malfunctioning server so a forensic examiner could look at it if needed.
When Steger asked how long the county may take in compiling and reviewing the footage, county attorney Dee Hobbs alluded to the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, we do not know what tomorrow brings. We may be sent home. We don’t know,” Hobbs said.
William Klaver, who is representing himself in his suit against Wilkey and the county, said the timing of the downed server was too convenient — months after he filed his complaint in July – and the county kept the plaintiffs in the dark for weeks after learning of the loss.
“I don’t believe a word they said so far,” Klaver said.
A trial is scheduled for August 2021.