A Coffee County judge on Tuesday denied a Georgia man’s request to publicly share unredacted dashboard and body camera footage of a traffic stop that resulted in all five of his young children being sent into foster care.
Deonte Williams argued through his attorney that he had a First Amendment right to distribute footage from the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s traffic stop in February. Cops stopped Williams for “dark skin color and driving in the left lane while not actively overtaking” as he drove his family from their home in Georgia to an uncle’s funeral in Chicago.
The footage shows a two-hour period during which officers searched the Dodge Durango, arrested the family and then arrested Williams for possessing less than five grams of marijuana – a misdemeanor in Tennessee. Bianca Clayborne, Williams’ partner, was cited and told she was allowed to leave with her children. Instead, when Clayborne drove to the jail to post bail for Williams, police and social workers took her five children away. The children were between four months and seven years old.
There must be a compelling state interest in banning such statements. . . There should be no reason why they can’t share them.
– Dawn Deaner, attorney for Deonte Williams and Bianca Clayborne
Coffee County General Sessions Judge Greg Perry issued a “protective order” in June prohibiting the footage from being distributed to the public and warning that anyone who did so would be held in contempt.
The couple’s attorney argued for the protective order to be lifted, calling it an unreasonable restriction on the couple’s constitutionally protected speech rights.
“There must be a compelling government interest in banning such speech,” said Dawn Deaner, who represents Clayborne and Williams. “You obtained these recordings legally. There should be no reason why they can’t share them. The people involved are their children and themselves, so if they feel comfortable sharing videos with whoever they want, they should have the freedom to do so.”
Unredacted footage of the traffic stop was turned over to Deaner in response to a subpoena, but the case never went to trial, where it could have been used as evidence and become part of the court’s public record. Charges against Clayborne were dropped in August. Williams pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of simple possession.
Coffee County District Attorney Marcus Simmons argued that the family was legally barred from sharing the hours of unredacted videos already in their possession. Instead, Simmons said, the couple could file a public records request with the Tennessee Highway Patrol, which could choose to redact portions of the video.
“The state was opposed to providing them (video) in the first place,” Simmons said. “If they want it released, the state’s position is the appropriate path is to obtain a FOIA request or a Public Records Act request so that the Tennessee Highway Patrol can make the necessary redactions.”
“I just want to remind the court that there are children here… I don’t know if these children will want their faces in the news months or years from now,” he said. “The state would simply ask that these interests also be kept in mind.”
A black family fights to get their children back from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services
Perry rejected a request to allow the family to share pre-existing videos, saying he feared releasing them could violate an order he made in juvenile court that showed the couple fighting to keep their children after the traffic stop to bring home.
Perry, who denied the couple’s request to withdraw from the criminal case because of his involvement in their juvenile court proceedings, issued the gag order after the family and their personal attorney spoke publicly about the removal of the children and the conduct of the Department of Child Care and Juvenile Court proceedings.
“I would advise them to be cautious in disseminating information as part of the juvenile criminal record,” Perry said in court Tuesday.
However, Perry agreed to modify his existing order to allow parents — and the public — to submit formal records requests to the Tennessee Highway Patrol for redacted versions of the dashboard and body camera videos.
“I will amend the order to allow them to have these records redacted by THP because of the minor children,” the judge said. “I will make it available to everyone. Anyone who wants to get it can access it via THP. ”
(A Tennessee Lookout public records request for the footage in March was denied by the THP, citing the then-open crime against the parents as the reason for the denial.)
The children were returned to their parents two months after the traffic stop and there are currently no juvenile court proceedings against the family.
The incident attracted widespread public attention, in part because it raised questions about whether the family, who is Black, were treated unequally as they drove through a predominantly white, rural area of Tennessee.
Her case drew condemnation and calls for the children’s immediate return from the Tennessee NAACP, Democratic lawmakers and others after a story was published in the Lookout chronicling the incident and the parents’ agonizing fight to have their children returned.
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