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No Subject Matter Jurisdiction for Wrongful Arrest Victim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 13, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 2006, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, in conjunction with WZTV-Fox 17, smeared a Nashville’s woman’s name as a result of a law enforcement clerical error.

Last week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said, (and we paraphrase): Eh … These things happen, but you don’t have subject matter jurisdiction for a Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) claim against the government, and the television station is protected by Tennessee’s fair report privilege.

Let’s go back to the beginning to see how this debacle occurred.

In October 2006, the U.S. Marshals Service worked with Nashville Police -- who were deputized as temporary Marshals -- to locate and apprehend individuals wanted on federal, state, or local felony warrants in fugitive roundup called Operation Falcon III. Police mistakenly arrested Plaintiff Paula Milligan during the Operation due to a sloppy clerical work.

One of the Operation warrants was for "Paula Milligan a.k.a. Paula Rebecca Staps" (Milligan/Staps), a 5'3", 24-year-old white female with brown hair and blue eyes, and a North Carolina driver's license and address. Rather than manually entering all this information, the Nashville Warrants Division clerk responsible for processing the warrant for Milligan/Staps allowed a system database to autofill all of "Paula Milligan's" identifying information.

Unknown to the clerk, this information actually belonged to Plaintiff Milligan, a 5'6", 42-year-old white female with blond hair and brown eyes, and a Tennessee driver's license and address. Plaintiff Milligan's information appeared in the index because of a traffic ticket.

The clerk didn't cross-reference the physical description on the warrant with the description already in the index, so Plaintiff Milligan's information was linked to the outstanding warrant for Milligan/Staps.

Due to the clerk's blunder, and several other law enforcement miscommunications, police arrested the wrong Paula Milligan. Aggravating the situation, Plaintiff Milligan's arrest was captured for a Fox 17 special report about the Operation. Despite the fact that police discovered their error and dropped charges against Plaintiff Milligan before the broadcast date, they never communicated the error to Fox 17. Thus, Fox 17 broadcast footage of Plaintiff Milligan's wrongful arrest, claiming that she was wanted for forgery and identity theft, and that police had "warrants in hand" for her arrest.

Plaintiff Milligan sued the government and Sinclair Broadcasting, Fox 17's parent company. The district court granted Sinclair's motion for summary judgment on the defamation and false light claims based on the fair report privilege, and dismissed the FTCA claim against the U.S. for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed both rulings.

The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court that shoddy warrant work falls within the discretionary function exception to the FTCA, thus recovery is barred.

Do you agree with the court, or should Plaintiff Milligan be permitted to pursue her claim?

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