The Sumner County District Attorney’s office dropped charges on Monday against a Gallatin man accused of DUI a week after a judge ordered the county’s main DUI prosecutor off the case citing “vindictiveness in prosecution.”
The prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Bryna Grant, was dismissed from her position by Sumner County District Attorney General Ray Whitley on Friday.
Grant, 44, had been a prosecutor in Sumner County since December 2002. She served as the county’s domestic violence prosecutor for five years, and prosecuted DUI cases for the last seven years.
In May, Nashville attorney Bryan Stephenson filed a motion to either dismiss the indictment in his client’s case or disqualify Grant because of vindictive prosecution. Vindictive prosecution occurs when a prosecutor abuses his or her authority with the intent to punish a defendant for exercising a legal right.
Stephenson’s client was charged with DUI-First Offense in May 2018.
According to court documents, the defendant was observed by a Gallatin police officer turning into Nashville Pike from Lock Four Road. He almost hit the center lane divider and crossed the center line travelling 64 mph in a 45-mph zone. The defendant agreed to a blood test and registered .05 for alcohol with the presence of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, according to the documents.
The defendant was offered the minimum sentence (48 hours in jail) for a guilty plea, but rejected the offer.
Following a preliminary hearing and arraignment, Grant sent notice that she would seek the full sentence of 11 months and 29 days in jail at 100 percent even though his client had no aggravating behavior and cooperated with law enforcement during the arrest, Stephenson argued.
He also said that Grant lied to Sumner County Criminal Court Judge Dee David Gay when he asked during a hearing whether the minimum sentences were offered and Grant said, “absolutely.”
Stephenson presented the court with an email from Grant that contradicted what she told the court. “… I presume that a jury trial is the end result for a misdemeanor being sent to Criminal Court and I never offer the minimum in Criminal Court,” she wrote.
In an order issued Aug. 19, Judge Gay said he has heard complaints in open court from attorneys making the same type of complaints in the handling of DUI cases from General Sessions through Criminal Court.
“The court finds that vindictiveness can be present before a case is disposed of in such a way that uncontrolled anger, vigor and communications with the defense attorney can conflict with the pursuit of justice in a manner that affects the defendant’s due process rights,” Judge Gay wrote.
Gay also wrote that the offer of 11 months and 29 days at 100 percent appeared to be extremely severe for a DUI-First Offense with no aggravating circumstances; that Grant mislead Stephenson by stating she never offers the minimum sentence in criminal court; and that she misled the court by making conflicting statements.
The judge ordered that Grant be disqualified from prosecuting the case “because of vindictiveness in the prosecution.”
Attorney: DA aware of assistant’s practices
In a Supplemental memorandum filed Aug. 20, Stephenson alleges he has further proof Grant was untruthful in court.
While Grant told the court she files a Notice to Seek 100 Percent Sentencing in nearly every case, she has filed it in about 25 percent of her cases, Stephenson said.
He included an affidavit signed by Circuit Court Clerk Kathryn Strong listing Grant’s criminal court DUI cases from Feb. 2018 through June 2019.
There were 35 cases with intent to seek 100 percent sentencing filed and 121 Cases with no intent to seek 100 percent sentencing filed.
Stephenson again asked that the case be dismissed or that the DA’s office be disqualified from trying it. A hearing date was set for Monday, Aug. 26.
“The entire District Attorney’s office should be disqualified, if not already,” wrote Stephenson.
“To be clear, there is no allegation of vindictiveness against DA Whitley. However, given that DA Whitley reviewed ADA Grant’s file in court before the hearing on Aug. 2, it would give the appearance that he was aware of her practices.”
Whitley: No appearance of impropriety
In Monday’s hearing, Whitley told Judge Gay that his office would no longer prosecute Stephenson’s case. He also said that he reassigned the case after the order to disqualify Grant was issued.
“I wanted to do things right,” said Whitley. “I wanted to handle this case the way it should be handled and pay attention and do the right thing.”
Whitley said he has been a district attorney general in Sumner County for 41 years and a state and federal prosecutor for 48 years.
“I’m proud of the reputation I think we have and I want to maintain that reputation,” he said.
Whitley said that after Assistant District Attorney Dan Daugherty reviewed the case, he determined that the chances of getting a conviction before a jury were slim.
“There are things that go very much against the defendant but there are an awful lot of things that go in his favor,” said Whitley.
He also defended his office.
“If anybody is looking for an appearance of impropriety, they’re going to have to look someplace else. They are not going to look at the 18th Judicial District and say there’s an appearance of impropriety in this district.”
“It shouldn’t have gotten this far but I think corrective action has been taken. There won’t be any more problems,” Whitley added. “It wasn’t a problem to begin with, it was a perceived problem but I’ve addressed it.”
Grant: Statements were taken out of context
“I’m regretful I didn’t have the opportunity to defend the allegation that I made a false statement to the court on Aug. 2 and in my affidavit,” said Grant when reached by phone on Tuesday. “I don’t have a vindictive bone in my body.”
Since Stephenson has said in court filings that he plans to file a complaint against Grant with the Tennessee Board of Responsibility, the former prosecutor said she’s been advised by an attorney not to comment on that specific case.
“It’s been an honor and a pleasure serving the citizens of Sumner County,” said Grant who worked closely with Sumner County DUI Court participants. She also helped found the Sumner County Mental Health Court and Sumner Mental Health Court Foundation, a 501c3 that supports the court.
“My only hope is that Sumner County residents understand that I want it to be a safer community for people who operate on the streets. It was not just about prosecuting the offender, but it was also about making sure they got the help they needed so we didn’t see them again.”