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Choate v. Arms

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Northeastern Division

August 17, 2017

PHIL ARMS, Defendant.



         This case lends support to the saying that there are two sides to every story. It could also prove the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, if only the video camera had captured on film the alleged mistreatment inmate Derrick Choate received at the hands of jailer Phil Arms. Unfortunately it did not, prompting Magistrate Judge Joe B. Brown to recommend denial of Arms' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 24).

         Having conducted the de novo review required by Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court agrees with Magistrate Judge Brown's Report and Recommendation ("R & R") (Doc. No. 89). Accordingly, the Court will deny the Motion for Summary Judgment and overrule Arms' objections to the R & R, which are presented in the form of a Motion for De Novo Determination (Doc. No. 91).

         I. Background

         On January 14, 2016, Choate was a pretrial detainee in the Putnam County Jail. Arms, a lieutenant with the Putnam County Sheriffs Department[1] who worked at the jail, claims that Choate- convicted felon jailed on charges of felony evading arrest, and an avowed member of the Aryan Nations-"escaped from his maximum-security cell" and "refused to return." (Doc. No. 92 at 2). As j ailers were escorting Choate to a holding cell, he turned " 180°" to face Lt. Arms and told him that he would have Lt. Arms' wife and mother "f**ked with a n**ger d*ck, " or words to that effect. (Id. at 3). Because Choate turned around and made verbal threats, Lt. Arms believed that Choate "posed a significant disciplinary threat." Acting on the threat, Lt. Arms grabbed Choate and "put him against the wall." (Id.). Lt. Arms concedes that Choate "bump[ed] his head, " but claims this resulted in an "inconsequential small knot." (Id.).

         Lt. Arms' Motion for Summary Judgment is supported by his own affidavit (Doc. No. 24-1) and the affidavits from several correctional officers (Doc. Nos. 24-3, 24-4, 24-5) who were on scene. These affidavits generally state that, after Choate turned and threatened Lt. Arms, Choate was "put" or "taken" to the wall by Lt. Arms, which resulted in a superficial knot on Choate's forehead. They also uniformly opine that the force Lt. Arms used was not excessive.

         In addition, Lt. Arms relies upon the affidavit of Deborah A. Deck, L.P.N.[2] In her affidavit, Nurse Deck states:

Based upon my assessment of Mr. Choate, it was my opinion that he had a small lump on his head that resolved without any significant problems. When I initially saw him the first two times, he had no marks on his neck and did not complain about any marks on his neck until the second time I saw him. At that time, there were no marks seen on his neck. The third time I saw him there were marks. It would be very unusual for marks to appear three (3) hours after I initially observed him if they had been placed on him before 9:30 a.m. when he was initially seen.

(Doc. No. 52-1 at 2-3).

         For his part, Choate alleges that, on the day in question, he did not know he was on lockdown. He also claims not to remember whether he or his cellmate opened the cell door, but asserts that the locks on the cells had been broken for years, and inmates entered and exited their cells at will, even if they were not supposed to. Choate claims that, as he was being escorted out of the housing unit, he turned the upper half of his body "about 60 to 90 degrees" while still walking forward, and told Lt. Arms to "go f**k your mother in the ass with a n**ger d*ck." (Doc. No. 60 at 2). This statement, he claims, was not a threat to either Lt. Arms or his family, but Lt. Arms "became enraged about the comment." (Id. at 3). Lt. Arms then allegedly "grabbed" Choate "around the neck with both hands, " threatened to kill him, and "choked" Choate "for a period of time to an almost unconscious state." (Id.). After that, Lt. Arms allegedly "slammed [Choate's] head into the wall.. . while [Choate] was handcuffed . . . and not resisting in anyway." (Id.). The net result of Lt. Arms excessive use of force, according to Choate, was that he "received an extremely large knot to the right front part of [his] forehead, " and had "strangulation and claw marks to [his] neck." (Id. at 3).

         To support his version of events, Choate submitted his own affidavit (Doc. No. 71), along with affidavits from Derrick Flores (Doc. No. 61), Shawn Vincent (Doc. No. 62), James Whittenburg (Doc. No. 71), and Christopher Mayberry (Doc. No. 74), all fellow inmates at the Putnam County Jail. Collectively, those affidavits suggest the following: (1) a handful of inmates were sitting around a table in the day room playing cards when they were approached by several guards; (2) at the guards' instructions, Choate stood up and was handcuffed; (3) while being led away, Choate said something pejorative about Lt. Arms' mother or wife pertaining to a "n**ger d*ck, " but this was in response to guards inviting Choate to fight, Lt. Arms' statements to the effect that Choate was a "punk, " and that he ate guys like Choate for breakfast; and (4) Lt. Arms choked Choate and slammed his head into the wall (some say on more than one occasion). At least two of the affiants also claim to have seen a large knot on Choate's forehead after the altercation with Lt. Arms.

         The "escape" from the "maximum security cell" and some of the subsequent events were captured on video. Although the video lasts 7 minutes and 39 seconds, it appears (based upon the counter at the bottom of the screen) to encompass the period from 8:38 a.m. to 9:01 a.m. on June 24, 2016.[3] Approximately one minute into the video, a hand and arm can be seen protruding through the pie hole in the door of a cell that sits towards the back of the pod. Approximately fifty seconds later, as inmates are casually walking down the stairs towards a table at the back of the pod and directly in front of Choate's cell, Choate and his cellmate are seen exiting their cell. They then walk over to the same table and sit down. For the next five minutes based on the video, or twenty minutes based on the counter, Choate appears to be chatting with five to six individuals that are sitting at, or standing near, the table. Two jailers then approach and position themselves on opposite sides of the table. They are j oined by another j ailer.

         At six minutes into the tape, or twenty-one minutes according to the counter, five jailers are positioned around the table. After what appears to be a brief discussion, Choate stands up and is handcuffed from behind. Accompanied by jailers, Choate then walks to the left side of the common area, along the cellblock doors. At one point Choate turns to face Lt. Arms. Lt. Arms then appears to push Choate and the two, along with a jailer who was following them, disappear behind a staircase and are offscreen for the next 19 seconds. Seven minutes and fifteen seconds into the tape, or at 9:51 a.m. according to the counter, Choate and his jailer escorts reappear on screen for a few seconds and then disappear once again.

         III. L ...

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