Federal appeals court reinstates civil rights lawsuit over anal cavity search by Memphis PD

A lower court must now decide whether police stonewalled releasing internal records of the incident to avoid a lawsuit

By: - September 9, 2022 6:00 am
A police car blocks entrance to the Hernando DeSoto Bridge over the Mississippi River in Memphis after a substantial crack was found in it May 11. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

The Memphis Police Department is changing strategies in an attempt to hire 300 more officers. ( Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht )

A federal appellate court is giving a man who was subjected to an anal cavity search by a Memphis police officer without cause and against department regulations a chance to prove the agency slow-walked an investigation into the incident to avoid a lawsuit.

A divided panel of the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals this week reinstated Deaundra Billingsley’s civil-rights lawsuit against the Memphis Police Department over the actions of Memphis Officer Christopher Tracy in a July 2019 encounter.

Records show Billingsley filed a complaint against Tracy and Memphis Officer Justin Vazeii one day after Tracy bent a handcuffed Billingsley over the hood of a police cruiser, pulled down his pants and placed his finger “up the second knuckle joint” into Billingsley’s anus.

Although the Memphis agency ultimately deemed both officers guilty of “neglect of duty” and violating police search procedures, the finding came only three days before the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit was set to elapse, records show.

Billingsley wasn’t notified of that finding until the statute of limitations expired. He filed suit anyway, but attorneys for the Memphis police agency convinced U.S. District Judge Mark Norris to toss out the case solely because Billingsley had missed the filing deadline by five days.

In full public view and without consent, Tracy then pulled down Mr. Billingsley’s outer pants, reached a hand inside of Mr. Billingsley’s undershorts, rubbed his hand over Mr. Billingsley’s buttocks, then forcibly inserted (his finger) into Mr. Billingsley’s anus.

– Lawsuit filed against Memphis Police Department

Norris ruled there was no proof the Memphis police agency intentionally stonewalled Billingsley, but, in a two-to-one decision, the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed.

“The first basis of (Norris’) holding was that (Billingsley) has failed to allege sufficient facts that show (Memphis police) misrepresented or concealed a material fact,” the opinion stated. “Our review of the record leads to a different conclusion.”

“(Billingsley’s lawsuit) maintains that the city ‘slow-walked’ the processing of (Billingsley’s) complaint in order to conceal from (Billingsley) the date his cause of action accrued,” the opinion continued. “For instance, (Billingsley) submits that the city completed its substantive investigation into the matter in late 2019 but did not close the inquiry until July 28, 2020, just three days before the filing deadline applicable for civil rights claims.

“Moreover, the city denied (Billingsley’s) June 30, 2020, open-records request, stating that ‘there are no existing responsive records,’” the opinion stated. “(Billingsley) asserts that the city’s refusal to provide responsive documentation was pretextual, made to conceal the date the cause of action accrued.

“Absent discovery on whether (Billingsley) is entitled to (stop the Memphis police agency) from asserting the statute of limitations as a defense, it is premature to dismiss (Billingsley’s) civil rights suit,” the opinion stated. “We vacate the district court’s order and remand for discovering concerning the timeliness of the claim.”

Despite the Memphis Police Department’s determination the two officers violated departmental policies, there is no indication the pair were disciplined. Both remain on the force, and the agency now says it “unequivocally” denies Billingsley’s allegations.

‘Did you check his (expletive) good?’

Billingsley was “walking down a residential street in the Binghampton neighborhood” of Memphis on July 31, 2019, and stopped to talk to a “young man” identified in the lawsuit only with the initials “D.M.”

“This activity was not a crime,” his lawsuit stated. “It did not give the reasonable appearance of being a crime.”

Tracy and Vazeii arrived a short time later and “yelled at Mr. Billingsley and D.M. to put their hands on the hood of the patrol car,” the lawsuit stated. Without probable cause of any wrongdoing, Vazeii searched “D.M.” and “placed a small bag of what appeared to be cannabis on the hood of the patrol car, claiming he had recovered it from D.M.’s person,” the lawsuit stated.

Tracy ordered Billingsley to put his hands behind his back, handcuffed him, pushed him against the police cruiser and “began invasively searching his person,” the lawsuit stated.

It is presently unknown how many other innocent citizens (Memphis Police officers) Tracy, Vazeii, or both have accosted, detained, and raped, but the outrageous criminal conduct of these men on July 31, 2019 demonstrates that they pose a clear and present danger to those unfortunate communities that the city still pays them to patrol

– Lawsuit filed against Memphis Police Department

“Upon information and belief, Tracy and Vazeii would not have detained Mr. Billingsley and Tracy would not have searched Mr. Billingsley’s person without consent but for the fact that Mr. Billingsley is black,” the lawsuit alleged.

“In full public view and without consent, Tracy then pulled down Mr. Billingsley’s outer pants, reached a hand inside of Mr. Billingsley’s undershorts, rubbed his hand over Mr. Billingsley’s buttocks, then forcibly inserted (his finger) into Mr. Billingsley’s anus,” according to the lawsuit. “At some point during Tracy’s search of Mr. Billingsley’s person, Vazeii said to Tracy, ‘Did you check his (expletive) good?’

“Tracy had no legal basis for forcibly inserting his finger into Mr. Billingsley’s anus and doing so served no legitimate law enforcement purpose, the lawsuit continued. “During this time, upon information and belief, Vazeii subjected D.M. to similar unreasonable and conscience-shocking abuse.”

The officers continued to detain Billingsley until a “sizeable crowd” began to gather at the scene of the encounter, according to the lawsuit.

“After approximately another hour … the officers released Mr. Billingsley,” the lawsuit stated. “They had never even asked for his name. Sometime thereafter, the officers released D.M. without charge, got back in their patrol car and drove away.”

It’s not clear from the litigation what the officers did with the bag of suspected marijuana they claimed they found in the pocket of “D.M.”

‘No one answered’

Billingsley called the Memphis agency’s internal affairs unit one day later to file a complaint. He would later reach out to that unit “at least four or five” times as months passed with no word on the status of the unit’s investigation, according to the lawsuit.

When Billingsley sought a copy of his own complaint, the internal affairs unit told Billingsley that he “needed to be represented by an attorney before (the agency) would speak further or release to him any information.”

Billingsley eventually hired attorney Jacob Webster Brown, who took repeated steps to obtain information from the agency in preparation for filing a lawsuit. At one point, according to an affidavit filed by Brown, the lawyer was told to show up at the internal affairs unit in order to receive the information he sought. He did — only to be greeted by a locked door, the affidavit stated.

Memphis Police Department Internal Affairs letter by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd

“I remained outside for approximately 20 minutes and repeatedly knocked on the door,” Brown wrote. “Still, no one answered the door. I also telephoned (the unit) from the hallway outside (the unit office). Not at all to my surprise, no one answered the phone.”

Brown also filed a request via the Tennessee Open Records Act for a copy of Billingsley’s complaint and any related documents in late June. The agency denied the request, stating it had no records “responsive” to the attorney’s request and that the investigation into Billingsley’s mistreatment was ongoing, the lawsuit stated.

It was only after the statute of limitations had expired that Billingsley and his attorney received notice via a one-page letter that the agency had deemed the two officers guilty.

“It is presently unknown how many other innocent citizens Tracy, Vazeii, or both have accosted, detained, and raped, but the outrageous criminal conduct of these men on July 31, 2019 demonstrates that they pose a clear and present danger to those unfortunate communities that the city still pays them to patrol,” the lawsuit stated.

 

 

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.

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