Federal lawsuit alleges Knox County Sheriff’s officers abused authority in horse ranch raid

Federal lawsuit alleges Knox County Sheriff’s officers abused authority in horse ranch raid

Knox County Sheriff’s officers invaded a property where a married couple kept horses and arrested and abused the wife when she asked for a search warrant, according to a federal lawsuit.

Officers arrested the woman, Debbie Buckner, and detained her in a van without air conditioning for up to two hours in May 2015. Buckner nearly lost consciousness, the lawsuit says.

Officers denied Buckner’s repeated requests to use the bathroom, telling her “to shut the f— up;” she had no choice but to soil herself, the lawsuit says. Officers made fun of what happened, saying, “This bitch just pissed on the floor.”

Officers were there for an animal welfare check, but their actions were improper and unconstitutional, said Buckner’s attorney,Van Irion of Knoxville.

LAWSUIT: A federal suit alleges wrongdoing by members of the Knox County Sheriff's Office (photo courtesy of Facebook).

LAWSUIT: A federal suit alleges wrongdoing by members of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (photo courtesy of Facebook).

The lawsuit, filed by Buckner and her husband, Mike Sullivan, names as defendants two county animal control officers and two sheriff’s officers.

But the lawsuit is about much more than whether officers had a proper search warrant or whether and how they mistreated Buckner while she was in custody, Irion said.

County animal control officers visited Buckner and Sullivan’s property before and left property gates open, which allowed some horses to escape. One was seriously injured, the lawsuit says.

Another time, animal control officers ran over Buckner’s and Sullivan’s chicken, which the couple treated as a pet. The couple says video evidence backs up their story. But officers still “seized said chicken as evidence of plaintiff’s alleged cruelty to animals,” the lawsuit says.

Officers confiscated a cat from the couple’s property, even though the cat had just delivered kittens, and Sullivan and Buckner later found the kittens starving in a barn, according to the lawsuit.

Irion told Tennessee Watchdog such incidents happen to other people in Knox County.

“Animal control for Knox County has been confiscating animals from people and citing people for quite some time. There have been lots of complaints against them overreaching their authority that haven’t been addressed,” said Irion, citing a separate lawsuit against animal control officers covered in the Knox News Sentinel. He’s the plaintiff’s attorney in that case.

Irion said he believes officers arrested Buckner because they didn’t have a search warrant, and her questions about it made them angry. The judge who signed the warrant, Irion went on, time-stamped his signature 20 minutes before officers raided the property. But the judge’s chambers are 45 minutes from Buckner’s and Sullivan’s, which means the judge probably didn’t sign the warrant beforehand, Irion said.

“That officer is so used to getting her warrants rubber-stamped by the magistrate that she knew she was going to get it before he even signed it. I wonder how often that happens and whether magistrates and judges in Knox County even look at these search warrants, because the officers have gotten to the point where they just expect they’re going to get it,” Irion said.

“This has the potential to raise questions for every search warrant issued in Knox County in God knows how long.”

Irion said he believes officers who executed the raid were wearing body cameras but have so far refused to release any footage from that day, he said.

Van Irion (photo courtesy of Twitter).

Van Irion (photo courtesy of Twitter).

Sullivan, speaking on his wife’s behalf, said there’s no resolution in sight as it pertains to their alleged improper care of animals.

“It’s been 16 months, and we still haven’t been in front of a judge,” Sullivan said.

Martha Dooley, spokeswoman for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, declined comment and referred questions to the Knox County Law Office.

Knox County Law Office spokesman Myers Morton also declined comment.

From a legal perspective, Sullivan’s and Buckner’s guilt or innocent is irrelevant, Irion said.

“Law enforcement abused their authority and mistreated Mrs. Buckner,” Irion said.

“I would love to tell you the animals were fine. I believe that is the case based on what I know, but I cannot tell you that for certain and it really doesn’t matter.”

Contact Christopher Butler at chris@tennesseewatchdog.org 

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