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Deputy cleared in traffic-stop baptism

A Tennessee woman sued after she said a sheriff's deputy coerced her into getting baptized in exchange for not going to jail.

CINCINNATI (CN) — A Tennessee sheriff’s deputy was not at fault for failing to intervene in a quid pro quo baptism performed on an arrested woman by another deputy, the Sixth Circuit ruled on Thursday.

The bizarre case started in February 2019, when Daniel Wilkey, a deputy at the Hamilton County Sheriff’s office in eastern Tennesee, pulled over local resident Shandle Riley. According to court documents, Riley admitted she had marijuana in the car.

At some point, Wilkey, who moonlit as a preacher, allegedly made Riley an offer: If she let him baptize her, she would not go to jail and would only receive a citation. (Riley has since passed away, but her daughter Bailey White has continued fighting the lawsuit on her behalf.)

Riley reportedly agreed to the deal. After retrieving towels from her ex-mother-in-law’s house, she followed Wilkey to a boat launch at a nearby lake.

Wilkey called another sheriff's deputy, Jacob Goforth, to be a witness. Goforth also filmed the baptism on his phone. After the ceremony was done, Riley left.

Still, the strange incident apparently did not sit right with the Tennessee resident. Riley later filed suit against Hamilton County, Wilkey and Goforth, alleging the impromptu baptism violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Last year, a federal judge ruled partially against Goforth, finding that a reasonable jury could find he had a legal duty to intervene and stop the baptism. The judge dismissed other claims against Goforth, including for unreasonable search, negligence and battery.

On Thursday, the Sixth Circuit reversed that lower court ruling. Judges found Goforth had immunity against the claims because he did not know of the alleged coercive nature of the baptism.

“Whatever one might say about Wilkey’s conduct, his case is not before us," U.S. Circuit Court Judge Joan Larsen, a Trump appointee, wrote in the opinion. "We must assess Goforth’s liability individually."

"When Goforth arrived, he saw what appeared to be a consensual, if improper, situation," Larsen added. There was "no evidence in the record that Goforth knew of any coercion." Judge Amul Thapar, a Trump appointee, and Judge David McKeague, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed in a unanimous ruling.

In reaching their conclusions, Larsen and other judges on the Sixth Circuit zeroed in on Goforth's role in the baptism — and in particular, what he did and did not know about the unfolding incident.

Because Goforth arrived near the end of the encounter, he did not know Wilkey had taken Riley into unlawful custody, Larsen wrote. He also didn't know about the prior conversation between Wilkey and Riley.

According to court records, Goforth saw Riley talking and laughing with Wilkey in what he thought was a friendly manner. Riley was not handcuffed or restrained. Goforth even noticed she'd driven to the lake in her own vehicle.

Given all these facts, "we cannot say that every reasonable officer in Goforth’s situation would have known that Riley was not a willing participant, free to leave when she wished, but had instead been unlawfully seized," Larsen explained.

"Without knowledge of the underlying constitutional violation," she added, "Goforth cannot be liable for failing to stop it."

While the judges found that coercing someone into a religious ceremony would indeed be illegal, they also determined that any coercion in the incident came from Wilkey — not Goforth. In the end, they could not find that Goforth had violated Riley's First Amendment rights.

“Even if Wilkey violated Riley’s constitutional rights, Wilkey is not before us; only Goforth is," Larsen wrote. "There is nothing in the record indicating that Goforth knew of Wilkey’s quid pro quo, and Riley doesn’t argue that he did."

While the ruling dismissed claims against Goforth, those against the county and Wilkey are still pending.

Wilkey, meanwhile, has faced other legal headaches, including allegations that he groped and stalked other citizens. On May 12, Hamilton County Judge Barry Steelman dismissed 44 charges against Wilkey stemming from other lawsuits, including charges of sexual battery, rape and extortion.

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