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Feature

What Federal Judges’ Rulings Reveal About the Memphis Police Tactics

Five judges in recent years have found that officers violated residents’ constitutional rights during traffic and pedestrian stops.

A Black man, wearing a black headband, black graphic T-shirt and black and white jeans, sits in the driver’s seat of a red car with the door opened. His young daughter plays inside the car in the background.
Maurice Vaughn, 35, was arrested by police in Memphis, Tenn., in 2018. A judge ruled the following year that the officers violated Vaughn’s rights against unreasonable search.

It was a warm weekday afternoon, and Maurice Vaughn had just pulled into his brother-in-law’s driveway — a Memphis police car tailing closely behind, its blue lights flashing.

A detective with the police department’s Organized Crime Unit questioned Vaughn about a cracked windshield, then arrested him for driving with a revoked license, police records show. But it was what happened next that sparked a court battle.

This article was published in partnership with the Institute for Public Service Reporting, The Commercial Appeal and MLK50.

Even though Vaughn’s Toyota Camry was parked in his relative’s driveway, officers insisted on impounding it and conducting a search that day in 2018. They found a gun inside, and Vaughn was charged with felony gun possession. A federal judge, however, found that the officers violated Vaughn’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, and took the rare step of throwing out the evidence.

Without the evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges against Vaughn, but by then he had spent more than a year in jail. He lost his job. He lost his apartment. He lost precious time with family.

“When you’re not even convicted of anything, this can cost you your whole life,’’ said Vaughn, now 35.

Judges in federal court rarely throw out evidence in cases like Vaughn’s. It’s so unusual, that a former federal prosecutor in Memphis said he can’t recall ever losing a Fourth Amendment challenge over his three-decade career.

Yet federal judges and magistrates in Memphis have excluded evidence in at least 10 cases involving the city’s police department over the past five years, chastising officers in several cases for overzealous policing, according to a review by The Marshall Project and the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

The finding comes as the U.S. Department of Justice embarks on a civil rights investigation of Memphis police following the beating death of motorist Tyre Nichols, and five officers being charged with murder in the case. Investigators will be searching for cases like Vaughn’s to determine just how deeply abuse and misconduct run within the 1,900-officer department.

Defense attorneys say the number of successful Fourth Amendment challenges increased in recent years in Memphis as the police department waged an intensive campaign to get guns and drugs off the streets, relying on extensive traffic and pedestrian stops that used unmarked police cars in largely minority neighborhoods. Most of the successful challenges identified by the news organizations involved traffic stops and searches of pedestrians.

“Some officers, from our experience, they’re just not trained enough to know where the boundary is from between ‘any means necessary’ and what is constitutionally allowed in interacting with the citizens,’’ said Tyrone Paylor, first assistant in the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Memphis.

Though the number of successful challenges remains relatively small — only about 1% of federal prosecutions in Memphis are dismissed because of Fourth Amendment violations — defense lawyers like Paylor say the rulings are a sign of larger problems in the police department.

Many police stops and searches are never even challenged, Paylor said, and some officers simply don’t care if their actions violate people’s rights.

“They’d rather get guns and drugs off the street and have a court throw it out, but they still get the guns and drugs off the street,” he said.

A Black male lawyer, wearing a gray suit, leans his arm on top of a wall for a portrait. A gray and white federal building is in the background.

Tyrone Paylor, first assistant in the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Memphis, Tenn., in front of the Odell Horton Federal Building in August 2023.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Memphis declined to comment about the cases. Memphis Police did not respond to requests for comment.

The city’s police force has been under scrutiny since January, when Nichols’ death sparked a national outcry. Officers in a specialized crime unit called Scorpion stopped Nichols’ car on Jan. 7, saying he was driving recklessly. Bodycam footage showed officers pepper spraying, kicking and punching the 29-year-old, who later died.

Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told Memphians in a press conference after Nichols’ death that she would continue to work with community members to restore their trust in the police. She later said there was no evidence Nichols was driving recklessly or justification for the traffic stop.

“This is not a reflection of the good work that many Memphis police officers do,” Davis said after the officers involved in Nichols’ death were arrested. “What we do next will be a reflection of that character.”

Statistics on motions to suppress evidence in federal courts nationwide appear elusive or nonexistent. A range of experts contacted for this story, including college professors, attorneys and the clerk of the U.S. District Court in Memphis, said they know of no uniform statistics.

However, federal court analysts said the number of successful motions to suppress uncovered in Memphis appear significantly higher than what they’ve seen in other cities around the country.

Nationally, judges rarely toss out evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, according to Akin Adepoju, a law professor at George Mason University in Virginia. The fact it’s happened at least 10 times in the past five years in Memphis hints at problems with overzealous policing, he said.

“I think it’s certainly an indicator that some practices out there have gone unchecked,” said Adepoju, who trains federal public defenders from around the country.

The rulings criticizing the actions of Memphis police officers have come from five judges and magistrates in federal court, including appointees of former Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

In Vaughn’s case, he was just pulling up to pick up his brother-in-law for their shift in the catering kitchen at McAlister’s Deli in June 2018 when police stopped him. Vaughn’s brother-in-law was willing to take Vaughn’s car keys, court records show. But police insisted on impounding the car anyway, and it was during a subsequent inventory search that they found a gun in a duffel bag. A friend of Vaughn’s said he’d accidentally left it in the car earlier that day. The gun was registered to the friend, an Army veteran, but because Vaughn had a marijuana possession conviction from 2012, police charged him with felony gun possession.

Federal prosecutors argued that the search of the car was valid, but that even if police violated Vaughn’s Fourth Amendment rights, the officers believed they were acting appropriately at the time — meaning they could keep the evidence collected.

Opening Statement

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U.S. District Court Judge Sheryl Lipman disagreed, noting in her ruling that Memphis police’s decision to tow Vaughn’s car violated the department’s own policy. She pointed to testimony that one detective was going to leave Vaughn’s car but changed his mind after another detective told him he “wanted to tow the vehicle.”

“That description smacks of the very type of deliberateness that the exclusionary rule is designed to deter,” Lipman wrote in the August 2019 order, alluding to the rule that lets judges strike down evidence gathered unconstitutionally.

Judges offered stronger words for detectives in other cases identified by the news organizations. In January 2020, Memphis police gang unit detectives saw Derrion Goods’ car parked outside a convenience store with the engine running. According to court records, two detectives parked behind Goods, blocking his car in, because of their suspicions that he was engaged in criminal activity. They forced Goods out of his car, searched it, and found a gun, marijuana and a digital scale often associated with drug sales. They arrested him on gun and drug charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Parker rejected arguments from police and prosecutors and threw out evidence in his case. He ruled the detectives were wrong to stop Goods based on what the judge called “a hunch” because “even if the hunch turns out to be accurate, a hunch is not reasonable suspicion.” Goods spent several months in pretrial detention.

“All in all, the Detectives here practiced policing too proactively,” Parker wrote in 2021. In another part of the decision, he wrote, “Again, the Court understands that the Detectives face hard decisions and dangerous encounters, but there are constitutional limitations to the type of proactive policing here.”

Parker drew a similar conclusion in the case of Derwin Seals, who was on a bus from Dallas to Memphis in 2018 when police stopped the vehicle to conduct a “safety check” for narcotics and illegal weapons, according to a police record. Officers searched Seals' belongings and found a handgun, marijuana and cash, among other items. He faced drug and gun charges.

In court, Seals argued that the officers illegally prevented him from exiting the bus, and violated his rights during the search. Parker agreed and tossed the evidence in 2019. Seals, who lives in Dallas, spent more than five months in jail.

“I didn’t understand everything that was going on, but I knew there was something wrong with the way that they arrested me. I knew they couldn’t just search my bag like that,” Seals said of the Memphis police.

Retired federal prosecutor Tim Discenza said he declined at times to prosecute traffic-stop cases that appeared to have constitutional problems. Among the cases he took, he doesn’t recall losing a single motion to suppress evidence over his 33-year career working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Memphis.

But times have changed.

Today, “there’s more pressure put on the judicial branch,” said Discenza, who retired in 2010. “There’s been a clearly shown increase in unnecessary violence against certain minorities” by the police, he said.

Veteran defense attorneys like Claiborne Ferguson say Fourth Amendment challenges have long been a tough sell in Memphis’ courts. Still, chances for success are much better in federal court than state court, where most of the judges traditionally have been retired prosecutors, he said.

“You could have a slam dunk motion to dismiss in state court, and it would be denied,” said Ferguson, who’s been practicing in Memphis since 2000. He said federal judges, by contrast, are less deferential to law enforcement.

“Those federal judges don’t give a darn about who’s on the stand testifying. They have no deference to law enforcement. None,” Ferguson said.

The rulings by federal judges in Memphis are also significant, considering that to prevail in federal motions to suppress evidence, defendants have to clear a higher bar than in state courts. In state cases, defendants generally must prove that police violated their rights while gathering evidence against them — something legal experts say already is a high standard. But in federal courts, the bar is even higher because of a legal principle called the good faith doctrine: Even if a judge finds that police illegally obtained evidence, the judge can still allow it if prosecutors can show that the officers believed they were acting lawfully when they made a stop, search or arrest.

While some believe that the successful challenges in Memphis are a sign that the justice system is working, the outcomes provide little solace for people like Vaughn and his family.

A Black man, wearing a black headband and black graphic T-shirt, leans on his right hand while it is placed on his shoulder.

Vaughn in front of his home in Memphis, Tenn. in September 2023.

Vaughn said the time he spent wrongly incarcerated has left him with lasting trauma. While in jail, he said he witnessed several fights, stabbings and sexual assaults. At night, in his cell, he slept with a sock full of padlocks wrapped around his hand so he could defend himself if anyone attacked him.

Now a free man with a young daughter, Vaughn says he’s still afraid of being in quiet environments, often sleeping with a television on for background noise.

His mother, Unitta Vaughn, said police put her son in danger and stole a large piece of his life.

“They really didn’t have an excuse to pull him over,’’ she said. “They could put more of their time into trying to fight crime.’’

Daphne Duret Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. She reports on policing issues across the country and is based in south Florida.