Tennessee Cops Posed as a Defense Attorney to Get Suspect To Incriminate Himself

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Here’s a whopper of an opinion (PDF) from the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

It seems that in 2008, Monroe County Sheriff’s Detectives Doug Brannon and Pat Henry actually posed as a federal defense attorney in an attempt to get incriminating information out of suspect John Edward Dawson, who was in jail on a host of charges, including theft and drug distribution. Not only that, but in doing so, they also talked Dawson into refusing to cooperate with his public defender and to plead guilty to the charges against him. They communicated with Dawson via a jailhouse informant.

Dawson’s public defender was so taken aback by his assurances to her that he had a “federal lawyer” who had worked out all of his charges, that she actually asked for a psychiatric evaluation. When all this came to light, Dawson’s (real) attorney asked for a continuance in his case so she could assess the damage. Remarkably, Tennessee Tenth Judicial Judge Amy Reedy refused the request, ruling that Dawson made “a real dumb decision” and that he had “picked his poison.”

The appeals court disagreed.

[T]he conduct of the law enforcement officers in this case, and in particular Detective Henry, is so egregious that it simply cannot go unchecked.  That Detective Henry would illegally pose as an attorney and arrange the circumstances of the defendant’s case to make it appear as though he had successfully undertaken legal representation of the defendant is abhorrent.  That the detective would specifically instruct the defendant not to communicate the relationship to his appointed counsel, in what we can only assume was an effort to enlarge the time for the detective to gain incriminating information from the defendant, renders completely reprehensible the state action in this case.  Given the unconscionable behavior of the state actors in this case and the fact that the defendant was essentially prevented from proving prejudice through no fault of his own, we have no trouble concluding that the only appropriate remedy in this case is the dismissal of all the indictments.

According to KnoxNews.com, Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens and DA Steven Bebb had some knowledge of the ruse, but did nothing to stop it.

During a hearing on the issue, Sheriff Bivens testified that he was vaguely aware of Henry’s plot and did not see “a problem with it,” adding, however that “if it’s illegal, of course, I don’t want to do it.” Bivens did not order a probe of Henry’s actions or take any disciplinary action; nor did Bebb initiate charges of impersonating a lawyer.

Assistant District Attorney General Bebb then successfully persuaded Judge Reedy to overlook it all.

Accountability tally: Henry apparently now works as a securities investigator for Regions Bank. From what I can tell, Brannon still works for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department. Reedy, Bivens, and Bebb are all still on the job.

ADDENDUM: Post corrected. The court decision does not suggest Assistant District Attorney General Bebb was aware of the ruse as it was happening. However, after he was made aware of it, he did continue to argue that it shouldn’t affect Dawson’s conviction.

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43 Responses to “Tennessee Cops Posed as a Defense Attorney to Get Suspect To Incriminate Himself”

  1. #1 |  b-psycho | 

    WTF…wasn’t there an episode of Law & Order where someone did that?

  2. #2 |  Bob | 

    Sheriff Bivens testified that he was vaguely aware of Henry’s plot and did not see “a problem with it,” adding, however that “if it’s illegal, of course, I don’t want to do it.”

    Holy crap. I guess the requirements for being a Detective or a Sheriff in Tennessee are just really lax, huh?

    Next thing you know, planting evidence will be illegal, too!

  3. #3 |  Reginod | 


    I know, talk about lax rules! How did someone who doesn’t want to do something illegal ever get on the force?

  4. #4 |  Jay | 

    Isn’t it illegal to practice law without a license?

  5. #5 |  Mark Thompson | 

    Given the fact that suits against officials for Constitutional abuses are called “Bivens actions,” one would think that the Sheriff here would have been uniquely sensitive to at least pretending to act in a responsible fashion towards criminal defendants. One would think wrong it would seem.

  6. #6 |  DarkEFang | 

    #2 Bob –

    “Holy crap. I guess the requirements for being a Detective or a Sheriff in Tennessee are just really lax, huh?”

    I suspect that Tennessee is like most states, in that that the only qualifications for sheriff are paying a fee of about $500 and acquiring a few hundred signatures.

  7. #7 |  DarkEFang | 

    #4 Jay –

    Even providing anything resembling a service that attorneys have carved out for themselves, like writing wills, is illegal.

    I’m sure the National Federation of Paralegal Associations – who have had a number of members tossed in jail and barred from work as paralegals for toeing the line between paralegal and attorney – would be interested to know that police officers are allowed to urinate on, then cross that line with no penalty whatsoever.

  8. #8 |  Aresen | 

    If they had sufficient evidence against Dawson to obtain a conviction, the ruse would have been unnecessary, which leads me to conclude that they did not have sufficient evidence.

    What concerns me is LEOs are probably looking at this and trying to figure ways to adapt it so that they can get it by the courts in the furture.

  9. #9 |  Highway | 

    Wow.. just… wow…

    Will people ever wake up to the fact that we don’t have a “Justice” system. We have a “Punishment” system. They catch a guy, they want to punish him, as hard and long as they can. And most of the people on the street will go along with it, cause “Well, they don’t just catch anyone, they must have suspected him for some reason. Plus, he’s probably guilty of something.”

    And again, where are the politicians standing up and talking about how this is unacceptable? *crickets* They’re all still sucking up to the cops who they need to cooperate to give them ‘protection’ while they’re campaigning.

  10. #10 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Awesome! There should be phony defense attorneys listed in
    the Yellow Pages. You show up, spill your guts out, attorney
    tells you it’s a go then he/she ducks out,
    citing emergency surgery.
    Said attorney is not attorney but rather policeman. Your taped confession
    is now exhibit A for the Prosecution.
    Perfect mechanism to round out the burgeoning Police State.
    In fact, I see at as a hit TV show. “Bait lawyer.”

  11. #11 |  zendingo | 

    aren’t cops allowed to lie to suspects?

  12. #12 |  jcalton | 

    Constitutional rights aside, I can’t imagine that the Tennessee bar (or state law) allows you to represent yourself as an attorney and claim to have practiced law on the defendant’s behalf (which occurred in the letters written to the defendant) and to give legal advice.

    They should bring charges against all the offending parties, as well as suing them for practicing law without a license.

    Here is the TN Bar’s contact page:

  13. #13 |  SJE | 

    How’s that New Professionalism working out Justice Scalia?

  14. #14 |  Highway | 

    zendingo, yes, unfortunately, cops are allowed to lie to suspects. But that’s as cops, where they are truthfully representing who they are. It’s a whole different species of fraud when they are misrepresenting who they are in order to entrap or coerce a suspect into confessing. Or even worse, like this case, where the guy was actively interfering with the defense by discouraging communication with the guy’s actual defense attorney.

    But even that sanction to lie to suspects in interrogation shows how little integrity there actually is on the parts of those folks. The whole sausage factory of ‘criminal justice’ is *far* worse than the sausage factory of lawmaking.

  15. #15 |  lunchstealer | 

    Holy fuck. Everyone involved needs to spend time in jail on federal civil rights charges. The detectives, the Sheriff, and the DA are all unconvicted felons.

  16. #16 |  lunchstealer | 

    And Reedy should be recalled, impeached, or just plain fired whichever is the most ignominious method of removal allowable under Tennessee law. Her opinion is evidence of either misconduct or gross incompetence.

  17. #17 |  Mike H | 

    Judge Amy Reedy has been warned about procedural violations before. She makes a point of ignoring these warnings. She’s also been investigated for corruption and jury tampering.

  18. #18 |  SJE | 

    #14: cops are also allowed to lie if undercover: they do not have to be wearing badges, etc. However, misrepresenting yourself as an attorney is an entirely different thing. I wonder if the Feds will go after these people for misrepresenting themselves as federal agents.

  19. #19 |  Brooks | 

    Reedy’s hearsay ruling at the motion was classic. Any second year law student in the country could have told you that’s not hearsay. I’ll bet Reedy even raised the objection on her own.

    State court judges generally want to hear anything tending to prove guilt, and do not want to hear anything not tending to prove guilt.

    If you translated a judge’s evidentiary ruling into a law school evidence essay exam, it would merit a C at best.

  20. #20 |  Andrew S. | 

    A few points:

    1. The appelate court opinion points out the illegality of posing as an attorney. Unfortunately, they don’t have the power to bring charges, and the people who do have that power never will.

    2. Do not read the comments on that KnoxNews.com article that Radley linked to unless you feel like gouging out your own eyes with a spoon.

    3. Anecdote time:

    When I was getting my LLM (Master of Laws) degree in taxation, I had a professor who had formerly been a general counsel for the IRS. He once told us that most tax judges are obviously former tax attorneys, who likely wouldn’t have dealt with evidence law at any time since they were in law school (which is a matter of decades for most of them). As a result, whenever a hearsay objection would come up, they’d overrule it for a nebulous “exception”, and go on with the trial.

    I took evidence in law school a decade ago. Haven’t dealt with it since (except on the Bar exam), and likely couldn’t tell you much about it. Then again, I’m not a judge. And I still think I know more about evidence law than Judge Reedy.

  21. #21 |  James J.B. | 

    Anyone wanna bet no charges ever filed – except against the inmate – they will string him up as the mastermind.

  22. #22 |  Michael Chaney | 

    Tenth Judicial District Attorney General Steven Bebb, in turn, called Monroe County Sheriff Bill Bivens and warned him to stay away from Sweet.

    If a DA is telling you to not do it, that’s your first clue that it’s a *really really* bad idea.

  23. #23 |  Tommil | 

    “the only appropriate remedy in this case is the dismissal of all the indictments.”

    Hey, look at it this way, that guy’s “Federal Lawyer” did get him off of everything.

  24. #24 |  freedomfan | 

    When most people saw that scene in The Departed where the mob-bought cop did this exact thing (though to a different purpose), it was a pretty clear example of corruption. I guess, to Monroe County Sheriff’s Detectives, it was more of a How-To guide…

    BTW, there is no shortage of dull legal renderings out there, but that appeals court doc is a relative page-turner.

  25. #25 |  random guy | 

    Tommil is right, in a sort of nightmarish way, it seems the best method of getting justice in this country is to have a cop do something so unethical to a person that it offends even the prosecutors.

    Until they all start doing it, and overexposure reduces the horror of the practice, so it just becomes SOP. Like no-knock SWAT raids.

  26. #26 |  Brandon | 

    The only just solution here is punishment by catapault.

  27. #27 |  Pete | 

    If the DA won’t press charges for impersonating a lawyer, someone should at least file paperwork to have the guy disbarred for deliberately and with malice aforethought violating attorney-client privilege.

  28. #28 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    Those cops really need to be suspended before being investigated by some other cops, cleared of wrongdoing, and given full backpay. Then, an expensive settlement needs to be paid by the taxpayers to the perp. That’s the only way things will improve.

    Oh, let’s also give the judge and DA a raise.

  29. #29 |  adam miller | 

    A lot of the smaller counties in Tennessee are openly corrupt or outright criminal. Cocke County is the worst in east Tennessee.


  30. #30 |  demize! | 

    Thank God for a wise appellate decision at least. But that judge needs to be impeached.

  31. #31 |  Kristin | 

    This occurred in MY COUNTY! While I’ve sent this to a couple of the local papers, being ignorant of proper procedures, I’d love for other commentators to tell me who it is that should be initiating charges against these people so I can contact them.

  32. #32 |  marco73 | 

    All that nonsense about “rights” just shouldn’t apply to “bad” people. If the man was in jail, then he was “bad”, and the police need to do whatever they have to to keep “bad” people locked up. Well at least that’s what the “good” people of Tenessee say, if you believe comments to the article.

    Holy cow, if a non-LEO pulled a stunt like that, they’d be locked up and facing a monstor civil case.

    Good to see that the former detective landed on his feet at Regions bank. I’ll bet Regions can save some money by having the former cop Henry pose as an attorney. He will probably sell out anybody for less than $300 per hour.

  33. #33 |  Mannie | 

    | demize! | March 9th, 2011 at 3:31 am

    that judge needs to be impeached.

    That judge, the DA, and the corrupt cops should be all serving the maximum sentence that could have been applied to Dawson. This crap won’t stop unless we take it seriously.

  34. #34 |  Cynic | 

    We’ve lived in a police state for some time now. US citizens need to get beyond the notion that “all” police and soldiers are “heroes” simply because they happen to be police or soldiers. The mass media and the public schools have done a great job of indoctrinating the gullible.

    Of course, the term “hero” is an intentional ploy by those in power to attract poor and middle-class citizens to a career of bullying the powerless and of being placed in harm’s way to do their bidding. Those in power really couldn’t give a damn whether they live or die, as long as they continue to do their dirty work for them.

    The police in the US have been increasingly militarized, and are increasingly under the belief that they can do no wrong. Perhaps because people in power support the evil that they do, and the mindless twits within the citizenry are there to cheer them on to greater brutality.

    The United States was founded on individual liberty. It has now been perverted into a fascist state. The term “fascist” upsets those who refuse to believe that such an inflammatory label can be attached to the nation that they’ve been public-schooled to worship as a deity. However, those most offended by the term are those most likely to goose-step to whatever tune the authorities play.

  35. #35 |  Andrew | 

    Whoohoo! Keep electing them americans! This nation cannot last long now!

  36. #36 |  Archie1954 | 

    I hesitate to say that Judge Reedy is reprehensible but his judgement certainly was. Where did this judge learn about ethics in the judicial system? Did he graduate from the notorious School of the Americas? He should be sent back to school to learn what ethics means.

  37. #37 |  Roscoe P. Coltrane | 

    I reckon it’s alright to do those things since dem boys was guilty as hell…cook em’

  38. #38 |  Judges Are Cowardly Low-Lifes Who Make Illinois Governors Look Good | Lawyers on Strike | 

    […] Low-Lifes Who Make Illinois Governors Look Good Via Greenfield’s Simple Justice and Radley Balko’s Agitator, a story about some cops who pretended to be defense attorneys, duping a defendant, named Dawson, […]

  39. #39 |  Justthisguy | 

    @#26, Brandon: No, impalement.

  40. #40 |  Justthisguy | 

    @#34, Cynic: When I was a kid in the fifties growing up in the South, it was understood that respectable people mostly had nothing to do with policemen, seeing that policemen were mostly White Trash recruited to keep the other White Trash and the Negroes in line. In my family, you could invite the colored yard-guy into the house to pay him, and give him some lemonade, but policemen were entertained at the kitchen door, at most, and not allowed into the house.

  41. #41 |  Joe | 

    How is there no prosecution for unauthorized practice of law?

  42. #42 |  Mick | 

    In most states, judges are required to be members in good standing of the State Bar Association, in order to sit on the bench. In all states, members of the bar have an ethical obligation to report “unlawful (or; “unauthorized”) practice of law (“UPL”) violations to the bar – failure to do so, is itself a disciplinary violation. Judge Reedy should therefore be disbarred for countenancing (and failing to report) this transgression!

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