A Georgia man wants to overturn an order prohibiting him from publicly sharing unredacted dash and body camera footage of a traffic stop that resulted in all five of his young children being placed in foster care for nearly two months.
The unusual order, issued late last month by Coffee County General Sessions Judge Greg Perry, will result in Deonte Williams – the father – being prosecuted if he shares footage from the two-hour traffic stop. The footage was obtained legally through a subpoena from his attorney, Dawn Deaner.
In a petition filed last week, Deaner argued that the judge’s order amounted to an unconstitutional prior restriction on Williams’ exercise of free speech that also deprived the public of the right to scrutinize law enforcement actions.
“Any decision by Mr. Williams to release these videos to the public would be a blatant exercise of his constitutional right to free speech,” the petition states.
“The content of the videos concerns important matters of public interest, e.g. B. how police officers treat citizens traveling on Tennessee highways during traffic stops… It also restricts the public’s right to hear and see how police officers behaved – and how they used their police forces – during interacting with Mr. Williams and his family.”
The case received widespread public attention earlier this year after the Tennessee Lookout released details of the February traffic stop and the subsequent forcible removal of the couple’s children by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.
A black family fights to get their children back from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services
Williams and his family were traveling from their home in Georgia to a family funeral in Illinois when Tennessee Highway Patrol officers stopped them for hitching a ride “Dark tint and driving in the left lane while not actively overtaking,” official reports of the incident said.
The subsequent traffic stop of the family – which included Williams’ partner Bianca Clayborne – left the children terrified, Clayborne said in an earlier interview. The children included a four-month-old nursing baby and 2-, 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds.
The couple’s seven-year-old son kept repeating, “It was like on TV; “It was like something on TV,” Clayborne said in the interview. “I just held him by his face and was like, ‘Don’t think like that, don’t think like that.’ Everything will be okay, everything will be okay.’”
THP troopers arrested Williams on a single misdemeanor count of marijuana possession after searching the car. The officers cited the smell of marijuana as the reason for the search.
While Clayborne was also being cited, she was told by THP officers that she was allowed to leave. However, when she arrived at the jail to release Williams on bail, all five of her children – including an infant – were taken from her side by local police and social workers from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, she said.
The Tennessee Democratic Caucus and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP were among the groups that expressed outrage over the removal of the children. The couple’s attorneys at the time questioned whether the family, who are Black, faced unequal treatment as they drove through a predominantly white county.
The couple did not get their children back for almost two months after the traffic stop.
The offense against Clayborne was dropped. Williams later pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor possession charge and the case was never heard in court, where the body and dashcam footage obtained through subpoena might have been released.
Perry, the judge presiding over both the couple’s criminal case and their children’s juvenile justice case, noted that his order did not prevent Williams or the public from filing a public records request for redacted portions of the footage.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol previously denied a Tennessee Lookout public records request for dashcam and bodycam footage.
Motion for a Writ of Certiorari Vetting Unconstitutional Prior Restraint 10092023