Corrections Sergeant’s Complaint About Police Investigation Potentially Protected By First Amendment

Mark Lunsford was employed by the Montgomery County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Department as a sergeant. In 1993, his stepson died, and an investigation by the Clarksville Police Department concluded that the death was accidental due to a self-induced drug overdose. Dissatisfied with the investigation, Lunsford asked the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department to investigate. The Department also concluded the death was accidental.

Lunsford continued his own investigation into his stepson’s death, and then in 1998, asked the new Clarksville Chief of Police to convene a coroner’s inquest. The finding reached at the coroner’s inquest contradicted the prior investigations, and found that Lunsford’s stepson was the victim of a homicide. On March 15, 2000, Lunsford filed a complaint against the District Attorney, several detectives, the Clarksville Police Department, and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, alleging “gross negligence and deliberate indifference” during the criminal investigation into his stepson’s death. Six days later, the Department fired him.

Lunsford filed a lawsuit alleging that his termination was in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights. When his lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that his complaints against the various law enforcement agencies were not a matter of “public interest” protected by the First Amendment, Lunsford appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals. The Court reinstated the lawsuit. The Court found that “the content of the complaint directly addressed whether the District Attorney, the Police Chief, and the Sheriff were properly discharging their duties. Lunsford filed his complaint as a private citizen, and not as an employee of Montgomery County.”

The Court concluded that the underlying allegations of the complaint were a matter of public interest: “Lunsford sought to inform the public that public officials in public agencies were, in his opinion, failing to properly discharge their governmental responsibilities in the investigation and prosecution of what appeared to be a murder, the most serious crime. Lunsford’s complaint is of public import in evaluating the performance of the District Attorney as a public official, and the Clarksville Police Department and the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department as governmental agencies. The complaint is also of public import in evaluating the performance of the Chief of Police and the Sheriff, as appointed and elected officials, because the performance of employees and their respective departments, particularly the detectives, directly relates to their performance of their duties as the Department heads.”

The Court remanded the case to the lower court for a trial.

Lunsford v. Montgomery County, 2007 WL 1028531 (Tenn.App. 2007).

This article appears in the July 2007 issue