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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: July 2023 | Health

I'm Fixin' to Get Baptized!

Norm Tabler


  • In this federal lawsuit, a deputy's offer of baptism as an alternative to jail time for a marijuana offense leads to a ruling on the violation of the detainee's rights and the grant of summary judgment on certain claims.
I'm Fixin' to Get Baptized! Pavone

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Deputy Dan Wilkey had detained Shandle Riley for possession of a marijuana roach when he gave her the choice between (a) going to jail or (b) simply receiving a ticket if she agreed to be baptized on the spot.

That’s the gist of Shandle’s claims in her federal lawsuit against deputy Dan, fellow deputy Jacob Goforth, and Hamilton County, Tennessee. Judge Travis McDonough addressed those claims in a 29-page ruling on April 7, 2022, on Jacob’s motion for summary judgment. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Shandle, the judge found the facts and law as follows:

Deputy Dan pulled Shandle’s car over and asked what she had in her car. She confessed to having a marijuana roach in her cigarette pack. Dan handcuffed her and thoroughly searched her and her car, finding the roach.

Raising the subject of religion, Dan asked whether Shandle had been baptized. She said she wasn’t sure she was ready for it. But she changed her mind when Dan revealed that God had spoken to him and told him that if Shandle underwent immediate baptism in nearby Soddy Lake, Dan should let her off with a ticket.

Deeming a dip in Soddy Lake preferable to jail time, Shandle agreed, declaring, “I guess I’m fixin’ to get baptized!”

Dan issued the promised ticket, and he and Shandle drove separately to Soddy Lake. On the way, Dan called Deputy Jacob Goforth to witness the baptism. Jacob would later testify to assuming that Dan was baptizing a personal acquaintance, not someone apprehended for a crime.

“I’m going to strip down to my skivvies [not to be confused with civvies],” Dan announced, removing everything but his underwear. Shandle removed only her shoes after Dan asked her to keep her clothes on.

Jacob filmed the baptism on his cellphone. Why? In order “to protect all persons present and document the event,” he puzzlingly testified.

Later, back on land and dry, Shandle concluded that she had been wronged. She filed suit in federal court against the county and against Dan and Jacob, both personally and as deputies.

Her claims included violation of her First Amendment right to freedom of religion, failure to protect and render aid, violation of her Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Judge McDonough had no problem awarding Jacob summary judgment on Shandle’s claim that he had subjected her to an unreasonable search. After all, Jacob hadn’t even been present for the search.

But Shandle’s seizure claim was a different matter. The baptism constituted a seizure of Shandle because she could reasonably believe that she was not free to leave Soddy Lake until the baptism had concluded.

Was the seizure unreasonable? Of course, it was. On what planet would anyone believe that an on-duty law enforcement officer could subject a detainee to a religious ceremony?

But could Jacob be liable for the seizure? Yes. A reasonable jury could find he had a duty to intervene and stop Deputy Dan from his misguided actions.

Did Jacob’s actions (and inaction) violate clearly established law? A jury could certainly conclude so.

As to the First Amendment claims, any reasonable officer should know that baptism coerced by law enforcement is a First Amendment violation. Jacob was duty-bound to intervene, and he failed in that duty. The same is true of Shandle’s claim that Jacob failed to protect her and render aid.

Shandle also asserted a claim against Jacob for failure to report the incident to the Sheriff’s Department. That may well have violated departmental policy, but it didn’t rise to the level of a § 1983 violation.

The ruling concluded by addressing Shandle’s tort claims against Jacob for negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Because she failed to point to any facts enabling a jury to find Jacob liable for those alleged wrongs, his motion for summary judgment on those claims was granted.

Just another night patrolling the mean streets of Hamilton County.

The case is Riley v. Hamilton County et al., E.D. Tenn.