Lenoir City man alleges false arrest in lawsuit against Loudon sheriff, 4 others
By Natalie Neysa Alund knoxnews.com
Garry Palmer sang his dead wife a gospel tune he wrote as he sat beside her headstone May 17, 2010, at Lake-view Cemetery in Loudon County.
It was the same routine the Lenoir City resident had performed every day since 53-year-old Brenda Palmer succumbed to kidney failure in 2008. But this particular evening took a path the 59-year-old man never expected and, he believes, changed his reputation forever.
Palmer has cerebral palsy.
He walks with a limp.
His speech is slurred.
On his way home that night, he accidentally struck a dog that darted in front of his pickup truck. Deputies responded, and, Palmer said, because of his medical condition, wrongfully assumed he was driving drunk and sent him to jail. Now he has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit accusing Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider, three county deputies and a court clerk of false arrest, failure to train officers, malicious prosecution and a constitutional rights violation.
Loudon County Attorney Bob Bowman said Mayor Estelle Herron was recently served with the suit and that someone will be hired to defend the county. He could not comment on the case. Guider did not return a phone call seeking comment.
According to the lawsuit filed last month in Loudon County Circuit Court, as Palmer made his way home in his red Chevrolet pickup on Shaw Ferry Road, the dog darted in front of his truck. He hit it and it ran off. He knocked on the door of a nearby home to report what happened.
When Palmer tried to explain the situation to three men at the 2612 Shaw Ferry Road residence, they became aggressive, the suit states.
He said he got scared.
So he called his brother, who instructed him to go home to call the Loudon County Sheriff's Office. He obeyed.
Meanwhile, the dog's owner, Jason Owens, dialed 911.
"Some drunk guy just hit my dog," Owens told a female dispatcher during the call. "He's drunker than hell, he can't even speak. Oh my God, you better get (deputies) here quick or I'm gonna give him the road rash my dog's got."
Owens hung up.
Another dispatcher then radioed a deputy and reported that Owens said "he's just reeking of alcohol."
But Owens, who could not be reached for comment, never said that during the 911 call.
The dispatcher also told officers that Palmer had no criminal record and a valid license with no restrictions.
Just after 9 p.m., three Loudon County sheriff's deputies, including Chad Petty and A.J. Yokeley, arrived at Palmer's home at 2069 Old Midway Road - less than a half-mile from the Shaw Ferry Road residence. In his report, Petty wrote Palmer appeared unsteady on his feet and had trouble standing.
"Palmer also had slurred speech and was shaking continuously and complained of cotton mouth," Petty wrote in his police report.
Petty made Palmer perform a field sobriety test, his report shows. He asked Palmer to follow a pen with his eyes, to recite the alphabet then to touch his finger to his nose.
He had difficulty doing all three tests, Petty wrote.
Although Palmer tried to explain his medical condition to deputies, the suit continues, they arrested him for driving under the influence and took him to Fort Sanders Loudon Medical Center emergency room to draw his blood. When they later booked him into the Loudon County jail, he called his brother Jim Palmer.
"I couldn't believe it," Jim Palmer said. "Everybody knows he doesn't drink. He was so upset he couldn't talk."
About four hours later, he posted his brother's bond and later that morning Garry Palmer appeared before Judicial Commissioner Cynthia Chapman, according to the lawsuit. During the court appearance, Chapman asked Palmer to get a letter from his doctor explaining his medical condition.
Also in court, the suit continues, either Yokeley or the third unnamed deputy now being sued, told Palmer and his son Dwayne Palmer that they learned he was telling the truth about his handicap and that he (the deputy) "made a bad mistake."
Eventually, lab results from Palmer's blood test came back, the suit states, and showed he had no alcohol in his blood, only therapeutic levels of medication he takes - Citalopram, an antidepressant, and Clonazepam, also known as Klonopin.
Regardless, the suit states, prosecution continued.
On Oct. 10, 2010, Palmer appeared before a Loudon County General Sessions Court judge, according to the suit, and Assistant District Attorney General Bill Reedy presented a series of offers to plead guilty to the offense.
Palmer declined all offers.
A few hours later, the suit states, prosecutors dismissed the charge.
"Everybody eventually figured out, 'Hey, this guy has cerebral palsy and you can't arrest someone for driving with a medical condition,' " said Herbert Moncier, his Knoxville-based lawyer.
Regardless, his family members say nothing could stop the gossip mill.
"It's a little town. Everyone came up to us and said, 'We heard your brother was arrested for being drunk,' " his brother said. "For the first couple of weeks, it was all you'd hear."
Palmer and family members including his brother said he's never had a drop of alcohol in his life. They describe him as God-fearing man and a devoted husband who writes gospel music in his spare time.
Palmer's sister-in law Terrill Palmer said the situation could have been prevented.
"If they had let his brother come over and explain, this never would have happened," she said.
Garry Palmer said he's just plain embarrassed.
"I've never been to jail in my life," he said softly with his head lowered. "I've never been in trouble in my life."
Now, Moncier said, his client's name is forever marred.
"It's just unfortunate," Moncier said. "He was dealt a bad hand at birth, and he took that hand and played it beautifully until this happened."
The suit seeks a jury trial and punitive and compensatory damages along with other demands.
It also seeks an injunction that forces law enforcement to make accommodations for a person with a disability during a criminal investigation.
"That they cannot use field sobriety test for a person with disabilities," Moncier said. "We have to make public accommodations under (the Americans with Disabilities Act) regarding schools and other places, but what about a criminal investigations?"
In the end, Palmer said, he wants to make sure others who have similar medical conditions like his don't suffer a similar incident.
"I don't want nobody else to go through what I did," he said. "I think officers who can't tell the difference between a handicapped person and a regular person shouldn't have that job."