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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Criminal Justice

Attorneys Expect Mass Dismissals of SCORPION Cases

Beatings, high-speed chases in unmarked police cars among emerging concerns

SCORPION officers on the scene the night of Tyre Nichols’s Jan. 7 beating. (Memphis Police Department footage)

They chased him that night in sporty Dodge Chargers, racing through the streets of North Memphis at speeds of nearly 80 mph.

As he tried to escape in his weathered Honda Civic, the teen ran a red light in a major intersection. He eventually stopped two miles later when the men in the unmarked Chargers finally activated blue lights and sirens.

It turned out they were cops – members of the Memphis Police Department’s now-disbanded SCORPION unit.

“He didn’t know that they were police,’’ said defense lawyer Leslie Ballin, speaking to a reporter on behalf of his 19-year-old client whose reckless driving and drug possession case was dismissed last week.

The dismissal is among the first of what attorneys anticipate might involve dozens and possibly hundreds of dismissals involving SCORPION, the special Memphis Police Department unit scrapped last month after five of its members were charged in the beating death of motorist Tyre Nichols.

“He didn’t know how fast he was going, but he sure was trying to get away from them,’’ Ballin said. “He thought they were robbers.’’

Steve Mulroy

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced Thursday, Feb. 9, that his “office will review all prior cases — closed and pending — of the five officers charged in the Tyre Nichols investigation.’’

Precisely how that review will happen — and what factors prosecutors will weigh in electing whether to drop charges — remains unclear.

“This is still an active and ongoing investigation,’’ said the two-sentence statement released by Mulroy spokeswoman Erica R. Williams.

But legal experts say the SCORPION unit’s still-emerging record of abuse likely will factor into decisions on whether to dismiss or go forward with prosecutions.

Created in 2021 by Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, the SCORPION unit operated in unmarked cars in “crime hot spots’’ in largely minority neighborhoods employing aggressive “zero tolerance’’ tactics that led to a number of volatile encounters.

Because prosecutors face a high legal standard to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, the credibility of witnesses — in these cases, police officers — becomes a critical concern, said law professor Steve Friedland.   

“If a case is built on untrustworthy witnesses, that will go into the calculations by the prosecution as to whether they should go forward in the case,’’ said Friedland, a former federal prosecutor and current professor at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, North Carolina.

“In this case you have two different issues. One is the horrible things they did when they stopped Tyre Nichols. But second, there was the coverup and the lies on the police reports. And that undermines their credibility in many other cases as well. If they were lying in this case, were they lying and the other ones as well?”

Monterrious Harris following his Jan. 4 encounter with SCORPION officers (U.S. District Court files)

Civil rights attorney Robert Spence said he plans to seek dismissal of charges against four separate defendants, including those against Monterrius Harris, 22, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Memphis seeking $5 million for a beating allegedly administered by now-fired SCORPION officers three days before their fatal encounter with Nichols.

“If you’re a young, African-American man you’re terrified. You’re terrified,’’ said Spence, who said talk among the defense bar is that prosecutors face dismissals in “hundreds” of cases.

Dismissals already underway

Ballin said he’s already obtained dismissals in five or six cases, including the Feb. 7 dismissal of charges against a 19-year-old client whom he described as a “shade tree mechanic.’’ The man fears adverse publicity, and the Institute for Public Service Reporting agreed to not name him.

A police affidavit documenting his Dec. 20 arrest in North Memphis says SCORPION officers pursued him in his “spray painted light blue Honda Civic” at a high rate of speed in unmarked cars

The path of SCORPION’s Dec. 20 chase through North Memphis.

“Detective (Wann) Reed paced the Honda Civic at 79 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone and observed it run the red light at Jackson and Macon without making an attempt to slow down,’’ an officer wrote in an affidavit of complaint, a sworn statement that police file in General Sessions Criminal Court to perfect an arrest.

Among officers participating in the encounter were two who were later fired following Nichols’s beating death: Tadarrius Bean and Preston Hemphill.  Bean, 24, faces multiple criminal counts, including second-degree murder. Hemphill, 26, has not been charged.

MPD policy prohibits pursuits unless a violent felony is suspected. The policy also requires blue lights and sirens to be activated during a pursuit.

The police affidavit indicates, however, that the SCORPION officers didn’t activate their lights or sirens until the tail end of the nearly 2-mile pursuit.   

“Detective Reed initiated a traffic stop with blue lights and sirens at Jackson and Vernon. Detectives Bean and Hemphill pulled over to assist,’’ says the affidavit first obtained by the Law Enforcement Accountability Project, a web-scraping tool developed by Meaghan Ybos, executive director of the criminal justice reform organization People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws.

MPD declined to answer questions by The Institute about the incident or discuss how many arrests might now be subject to dismissal under the District Attorney’s review.

“A review of the Scorpion Unit (in) its entirety is currently ongoing,’’ MPD spokesman Christopher Williams said in a one-sentence email response.

The pursuit netted a felony charge of possession of methamphetamines and four misdemeanor counts including reckless driving, speeding and possession of drug paraphernalia. Prosecutors dropped all five charges last week in the courtroom of General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Lee Wilson.

Defense attorney Ballin said even without the dismissal the felony drug charge would have been reduced to a misdemeanor because the amount of meth officers recovered didn’t qualify for felony charges.

“Each case is being decided on its own. There’s no blanket rule that any case that SCORPION made is being dismissed,’’ Ballin said. “But the prosecutors are reviewing these cases and making decisions. And I have been involved in cases where these stops were questionable. Therefore, the subsequent search and seizure is constitutionally questionable.’’

Fast chases in unmarked cars

Ballin said he got two cases dismissed last week and both involved pursuits in unmarked cars.

“The clients were not committing any crimes. And next thing they know they think they’re being followed, you know, just tailgated,’’ Ballin said. “They’d speed up. The cars would speed up that were following them. And, finally, lights would come on and the clients pulled over.’’

Reports of pursuit abuses at MPD have grown in the weeks following the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols. SCORPION officers who stopped Nichols contended that he was driving recklessly, though Chief Davis has said she’s seen no evidence of that.

The Washington Post reported on Feb. 10 that it had interviewed an anonymous former MPD officer who said SCORPION officers were “given informal permission to engage in car chase scenarios forbidden by department policy.’’

If a case is built on untrustworthy witnesses, that will go into the calculations by the prosecution as to whether they should go forward in the case.

Steve Friedland, Elon University law professor

One police affidavit obtained by The Institute appears to describe such a pursuit last Sept. 20 by SCORPION’s Team One, the subunit that included the six now-fired officers.

According to the report, officers engaged in what was described as “mobile surveillance’’ of a Cadillac CTS with an expired temporary car using an unmarked police car.

The pursuit started near Memphis’s Douglass community. When officers attempted to stop the vehicle, it made “a quick evasive maneuver”, the affidavit said. The team then “set up a perimeter’’ and pursued the vehicle.  The report lists now-fired officers Bean, Emmitt Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr. as detectives participating in the action.

One team member, Detective Reed, “performed mobile surveillance on the silver Cadillac in an unmarked car,’’ the report said, noting that as he “was following the vehicle he observed the vehicle run red lights at Jackson and Hollywood and Springdale and Chelsea. Detective Reed also paced the vehicle at 70 mph in 30 mph zone while traveling northbound on Springdale’’ before coming to a stop at Hyde Park and Chelsea where three suspects then fled on foot. Available records list the apprehension of just one of them.

Apartment complex arrest

In his federal lawsuit, Monterrious Harris alleges he was unlawfully stopped and beaten by five of the six now-fired SCORPION officers just three days before their fatal encounter with Nichols.

It happened when Harris was visiting a relative in the Twin Oaks Apartments in Parkway Village. A police affidavit says officers focused on Harris when they heard him “screech’’ the tires of his black Chrysler 300 and drive at them at “a high rate of speed”. When the officers approached the car, they “could smell a strong odor consistent with marijuana,’’ the report said. Harris later fled on foot and was captured.

The defendant gives a far different account in his lawsuit.

Harris “was suddenly swarmed by a large group of assailants wearing black ski-masks, dressed in black clothing, brandishing guns, other weapons, hurling expletives and making threats to end his life if he did not exit his car,’’ says the complaint filed Feb. 7 in U.S. District Court in Memphis.

Monterrious Harris following his Jan. 4 encounter with SCORPION officers (U.S. District Court files)

“Unknown to Mr. Harris at the time – the black masked assailants were members of the Scorpion Unit. Not once did any member of the Scorpion Unit identify himself as a police officer. Mr. Harris – believing himself to be a victim of a car-jacking – panicked and attempted to reverse his vehicle, striking an object located behind his vehicle prior to exiting his vehicle with his hands raised. Consistent with the beating visited upon Mr. Nichols, the Scorpion Unit then exacted a swift, violent, and continuous physical assault on Mr. Harris that included punching, stomping, and dragging him across concrete,’’ the lawsuit says.

Spence, his attorney, said he will seek dismissal of the charges against Harris, which include felony drug and weapons charges and several misdemeanor counts involving criminal trespass, evading arrest and possession of drug paraphernalia.

“There was no grounds for there to be any kind of custodial stop in the first place,’’ Spence said. “There was nothing. There was no probable cause. There was no reason to have interjected with Monterrious Harris. He wasn’t committing a crime. He was sitting still in a parked car. He was an invitee of his cousin at the Twin Oaks apartment. So, he wasn’t a trespasser. And the reason that they set forth in the affidavit of complaint is totally fabricated – totally and completely fabricated. He didn’t commit any crime whatsoever. He was like Nichols. He didn’t commit any crime.’’

A big factor working in the favor of Harris and other defendants arrested by the SCORPION unit is that all five of the fired officers have been added to the District Attorney’s Giglio List enumerating officers who won’t be called to testify because of truthfulness or other credibility issues.

That decision is expected to implode many of the SCORPION prosecutions.

“The one thing the prosecutor has is called prosecutorial discretion. And people don’t realize what a big tool that is. And that allows the prosecutor to say this is not a proper case to go forward,’’ law professor Friedland said.

“One thing I can tell you (is) prosecutors have a lot of power. And to wield the power properly they should be seeking justice, not winning cases.”  

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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