December 5, 2020

Sheriff’s Office That Employed A Deputy Facing 9 Lawsuits And 44 Criminal Charges Says It Has Lost All Of His Dashcam Footage

Hamilton County (TN) Deputy Daniel Wilkey is in more trouble than possibly any other law enforcement officer has ever been in. Currently facing nine lawsuits over his bizarre and disturbing rights violations, Wilkey is simultaneously facing 44 criminal charges, 25 of which are felonies.

Wilkey’s rights violations were especially creative. He forced one woman to undergo an involuntary mid-winter baptism in a nearby lake in exchange for some assistance with the drug charges Wilkey was filing against her. In another incident, Wilkey pulled over a car full of minors, forcing the only male occupant to strip to his boxers while he alternated between swearing at the teens and preaching to them.

The criminal charges against Wilkey are a hideous blend of mundane and horrifying — ranging from reckless driving to false imprisonment to stalking to rape. Wilkey could have been taken off the street anytime before this turned into national news, but the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department apparently felt eight internal affairs investigations in ten months was acceptable behavior, rather than a continuous stream of misconduct it should have diverted before it overflowed the office’s capacity to control the narrative.

But the Sheriff’s Office seems determined to protect Wilkey from the consequences of his actions. As Courthouse News reports, a whole lot of camera footage from Wikey’s patrol car has suddenly gone missing. The attorney for the woman who was forcibly “baptised” by Wilkey has just discovered months of possibly-damning footage has mysteriously vanished.

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.

Flores has asked the court to ensure any recoverable footage is recovered and anything else that may have been recorded be preserved and handed over to her client. The court agrees this is a suspicious and oddly convenient software failure.

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.

The preservation request [PDF] points out that the date range of the “lost” footage covers most of the incidents Wilkey is being sued over. It also points out the Sheriff’s Office never notified any of the nine plaintiffs (or the judges overseeing the cases) about the lost footage.

Here, this data appears to have been lost for more than a month yet no notice of its loss has ever been provided to the Plaintiff, notwithstanding her spoliation demands and her properly served discovery demands. The only way this loss came to Plaintiff’s attention today (February 28, 2020) was when counsel was reviewing the Hinds matter and saw the undated letter attached to a state court pleading filed on the same day. The letter indicates that the Sheriff’s Office has been working on this problem for “several weeks” and it may be inferred that the loss occurred on or about January 23, 2020, the last date for which the data was lost.

There’s nothing in it for the Sheriff’s Office. Ensuring the footage remains intact only raises questions about why it didn’t do anything sooner to get Wilkey taken off the streets, if not removed from the force entirely. So, it took 180 hours of dashcam footage, moved it to an external hard drive, and than claimed a “software failure” suddenly made all of this evidence irrecoverable. There’s no reason to believe this was an accident — not until the Sheriff’s office makes some sort of showing it actually cares about the people it’s supposed to be protecting and serving.

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