A Black Tennessee man has filed a lawsuit claiming his civil rights were violated when he was wrongfully arrested after calling 911 when a 14-year-old white girl without a license crashed a vehicle into a building after driving erratically.
Michael James, a truck driver with no criminal record, filed the suit in May in the Circuit Court for Hamilton County against the City of Chattanooga and several officers.
The suit names Chattanooga police officers Lance Hughes, Amanda Baldwin, Jonathan Watkins and Sgt. John Doe, who has not been identified, as defendants. All of the officers are white.
In the suit obtained by Atlanta Black Star, James was driving in the early hours of May 6, 2020, when he saw a Nissan SUV driving in an “erratic and dangerous manner.” The Nissan, which was being driven by the 14-year-old and carried another minor passenger, nearly struck James’ vehicle.
James and the occupants in the Nissan exchanged words at a red light shortly after 4 a.m. and the minors in the car “flipped off” James before he returned the gesture and said he would call the police. The occupants were identified as 14-year-old Ella Peters, who is white, and 16-year-old Kyalia Anderson, who is Black.
The Nissan sped off through the red light before making a U-turn and driving erratically. After noticing how young the driver was, James followed the vehicle in order to obtain the license plate number to report to police, suspecting the vehicle may have been stolen.
While James was a “considerable distance” from the Nissan, it ran off the road and struck a building on the property of Barn Nursery, which prompted James to call 911 to report the accident. He waited in his car and watched as the occupants of the Nissan exited the vehicle and entered a nearby house before finally getting out once police arrived.
“So my call to 911 was a good deed on my part, especially when they crashed into the building, to make sure they were OK, and the people inside of the building that could’ve been injured,” James told TN Traffic Ticket last May. “I was offering assistance and rendering aid, but also to make sure who was driving was held accountable for it, because they took off running.”
James told officers Baldwin and Watkins where the occupants had gone. The officers spoke to the occupants at the home for several minutes.
The officers then approached James in a hostile manner, with weapons drawn, and ordered him to turn around and put his hands up before placing him in handcuffs.
Officer Hughes arrived and questioned James, then performed a test on him to determine if he was intoxicated although he had not consumed any drugs or alcohol. Several officers then searched James’ car without permission. According to Hughes, the minors in the vehicle told him James had chased and threatened them with a gun.
“The allegations don’t add up,” Mr. James said. “Sounds like false allegations to get out of what the person that was driving illegally that crashed into that building, sounded like they were just trying to get out of the situation. Those are false statements. There is no reason for me to do that to two young girls. What I observed and witnessed them — driving recklessly — and noticed that the two individuals in the car, they were awfully young, so I thought the car was stolen, but also thought they were falsely intoxicated — I seen ’em driving recklessly.”
The lawsuit notes that officers did not perform a test on, nor question the underaged driver who was operating the vehicle without a license and insurance, and without permission, nor did they search the vehicle.
James had a license, proof of insurance and valid registration at the time of the incident. During the search of the car, officers entered James’ trunk and searched a case inside a backpack, finding an unloaded handgun, which James owned lawfully.
When the wrecked vehicle’s occupants’ parents arrived at the scene, Sergeant Doe asked them to drive to the police station to press charges against James but they refused, the suit alleges. The suit goes on to say that Doe still moved forward with pressing charges against James.
James was arrested, charged with two counts of aggravated assault, and transported to the county jail for booking, where he faced an unlawful cavity search. The teen driver was not arrested and faced no criminal charges. According to the suit, Hughes placed false information on the affidavit of complaint to initiate charges against James.
James remained in jail for a period before being released. Upon his release he had to pay $200 to retrieve his car, which had been towed from where it was lawfully parked, and all of the possessions he had been booked with were not returned to him, including an unspecified sum of money.
After multiple court appearances, all charges against James were finally dropped.
According to the suit, James’ civil rights were violated during the ordeal and the officers’ conduct demonstrates poor training on the part of the city of Chattanooga and proves he was treated differently because of his race. James is seeking $450,000 in damages.