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We Could Win the Villegas Case on Appeal But . . .

No matter who you are or where you are from – the moment one sees their child come into this world is unmatched.  Maybe you feel that everything you’ve sacrificed has been worthwhile.  Maybe it’s a feeling of pride.  Maybe it’s the feeling that things truly can get better.  Maybe it’s relief that everything turned out ok.  No matter who you are that moment of renewal cannot be matched.  There is a transcendent truth in that moment for all of us lucky enough to experience it.  Because of our city, that truth will forever be stripped from Juana Villegas.

Back in 2008, Ms. Villegas was in our jail and was shackled in various manners during the last few hours of her pregnancy – after her water broke, immediately prior to the delivery of her son and then soon after she delivered him.  At one point, we shackled her with her legs held together even while she was in labor.  Later, we shackled her despite warnings from her doctors that the shackles could cause her serious injury.  I’m ashamed that this happened here, in Nashville.

Why did we have Ms. Villegas in jail?  Ms. Villegas was not charged with a crime of violence but was in jail after being stopped for a minor traffic violation where the police determined she did not have a driver’s license.  While she was in our jail for not having a driver’s license, she was further detained pursuant to a federal immigration program called 287(g) which has been widely criticized as unfair and abusive.

Ms. Villegas and her lawyers argued that this kind of treatment was a violation of the United States Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.  We defended Ms. Villegas’ case by arguing that women in the final stages of labor are a flight risk, that she had no constitutional right to deliver her child without shackles and that all her pain and suffering really came from the fear of deportation.

In a rare decision, the District Court accepted Ms. Villegas allegations as true before trial – agreeing with her that we had been cruel and unusual in how we imprisoned her.   This rare decision came about as a result of clear law prohibiting what we did.  Later, a jury of people who live in Nashville and the surrounding counties awarded Ms. Villegas $200,000 as damages for what we did to her.

I’ve spent some time looking over the Court’s decision and what we filed before it ruled.  There are certainly issues for an appeal – which we might win by making some new law.  We can also give ourselves some leverage to settle the case for less than $200,000 by appealing.  We can delay payment of the judgment by a couple of years if we appeal.  So, we have some legal arguments still to make – all of which could save us money and might vindicate us legally.   On the other hand, by accepting this judgment, we could avoid the potential for a re-trial which results in a higher judgment or the possibility of increased attorney’s fees for Ms. Villegas legal team.  Maybe, her lawyers would even agree to reduce the amount to which they’re already entitled if we agreed not to appeal.  From a legal perspective, there are as many reasons not to appeal as there are to appeal.

The decision whether to appeal is all about Nashville’s future.  It is not about blaming anyone for what happened to Ms. Villegas.  The past cannot be changed.  The Sheriff, to his credit, has changed the policy and this type of treatment should not happen again.   However, we still have an opportunity to change the future for Ms. Villegas.  We can chose to put this embarrassing moment behind us and pay her for our error.  That’s one way for us to apologize for what we did even if it took us three years to do so.

I appreciate our elected representatives’ desire to save tax money and I understand that having a federal court tell us how to run our jail is problematic.  Nevertheless, I hope that someone comes to their senses and lets this matter end now, here in Nashville, without regard for our legal position and without letting the the rest of the world think we condone this kind of treatment.  Sometimes, being legally correct is not all that matters.  Sometimes doing what you know to be morally right – even though you don’t have to – is what matters.  If this case is appealed because of a legal judgment and without regard to the morality of the situation, I will not only be ashamed – I’ll wonder who is making decisions for us and why.

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One response

  1. Well said, David. I have no interest in assigning blame either, but those responsible for creating an atmosphere wherein cruel and inhumane treatment of others is tolerated should take heed. Leadership positions come with moral responsibilities not necessarily outlined in the job description. The abuses of the 287(g) program were not unexpected. Many community leaders warned that line personnel lacked the proper training and that in the climate of fear surrounding it’s implementation, many people would unnecessarily suffer. Too often it takes a large civil judgement or criminal conviction to prompt those in leadership positions to act, and that is shameful. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    August 24, 2011 at 8:06 am