Rutherford County has seen multiple ethical issues arise from its criminal justice system recently, from the criminal activities of former Sheriff Robert Arnold to the complaints of “abusive” payment practices against Providence Community Corrections to a pending lawsuit filed against Juvenile Detention Center officials.
Another recent complaint of questionable treatment by the county toward those facing judicial action stems from an incident involving Rutherford County resident Ethan Castaneda. His entrance into the local legal system as a defendant goes back to Oct. 6, 2016. Not long before midnight, the 16-year-old was driving home after dropping off a friend and visiting a nearby Sonic Drive-In. He was headed home on Almaville Road passing Inez Drive, not far from Stewart’s Creek High School, where he came to the scene of several Rutherford County Sheriff’s Officers engaged in a traffic stop of another vehicle.
Because of the traffic stop—in other words, the placement of multiple vehicles stopped on the road—an eighteen-wheeler attempting to turn left was unable to do so, and was therefore also stopped in the opposite lane.
According to the Castaneda Family, Ethan was able to see the lights of the RCSO vehicles. But both the headlights of the semi-truck facing him and the overall darkness of the area didn’t allow for total visibility of the road, where several RCSO officers were apparently standing in the road. Ethan shares that he was doing the legal speed limit, and not wanting to “rubberneck,” he proceeded through the area without slowing down.
Ethan was pulled over by RCSO’s Deputy Keith. Per the police report, Deputy Keith says that he “had to jump onto another vehicle to keep from getting hit,” and that Castaneda was driving “in disregard to public safety.” Keith claims that he both noticed the odor of intoxication and that Ethan had bloodshot eyes.
Ethan insisted that hadn’t been drinking, and explained to Deputy Keith that he didn’t see anyone in the road, and thought that because the police lights looked to be a safe distance from the road, he assumed the road safe for travel. Rather than give Castaneda a field sobriety test, Deputy Keith placed Ethan under arrest for Driving Under the Influence, Consumption of Alcohol Under 21, Felony Reckless Endangerment and Curfew Violation.
The Castaneda Family says that Ethan was taken to St. Thomas Rutherford Hospital, where he was to be medically cleared. Ethan, a minor who did not have a guardian present, according to his family, was not told that he would be subjected to testing his blood and urine for an alcohol/drug screening to measure his Blood Alcohol Content (B.A.C.).
Rather, officials told the juvenile that he needed to be “medically cleared” before he could go to detention.
“I asked the hospital if that was a regular screening for pre-detention and I was quickly referred to their legal department,” said Ethan’s father, Alex Castaneda.
According to the “Narrative” section of the Sheriff’s Report for the incident, “Ethan’s urine test came back positive for alcohol but Mr. Castaneda kept denying consuming any alcoholic beverage.”
Deputy Keith also says that the field sobriety test “was not performed for officer safety reasons.”
After leaving the hospital, Ethan was transferred to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, where he was booked. The incident, which occurred just before midnight on Friday, Oct. 7, had Ethan in the custody of the JDC until his court date on Monday, Oct. 10, at 1 p.m., which resulted in house arrest and loss of driving privileges. After several subsequent preliminary hearings, Ethan’s trial is now set for June.
A key detail of this incident includes the fact that the TBI’s Official Alcohol Report states that Ethan’s blood sample tested negative for alcohol, potentially meaning that the grounds on which Ethan was initially processed aren’t entirely accurate.
Presuming both the integrity and competence of Deputy Keith, the idea of a “false positive” registering on a urine screening brings up the following question: how many people are taken into police custody based on test results that aren’t entirely accurate? And are the results of this test—or the test itself for that matter—available for public scrutiny?
It should also be noted that the field sobriety test wasn’t offered to Ethan because Deputy Keith officially expressed fear for his safety. The Narrative section of the Sheriff’s Report makes no mention that Ethan was combative or disrespectful in any fashion, and no mention of a weapon is made. In addition, four other RCSO officers were in the immediate area handling the previous traffic stop.
If Ethan was cooperative with Deputy Keith, does the sentiment “I was afraid for my life”—a term frequently associated with excessive use for force—see justifiable use within this circumstance?
Because of Castaneda’s status as a minor, neither the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office nor the District Attorney General’s office are legally able to comment on the case.
But speaking to the Pulse about the incident, Alex Castaneda expressed dismay for the way the situation was handled. Mr. Castaneda, a former police officer of two decades and now the Security and Emergency Services Manager for a hospital in Central Louisiana, said that he has many questions that remain unanswered regarding the incident and criticized the way it was handled.
“Well, I’ve been in this business almost 23 years now,” he says. “There are protocols, policies and procedures that we as law enforcement officers go by . . . not to mention the laws set in place to help us make the right decisions about the situations we find ourselves engaged in on a daily basis. Had Deputy Keith used the tools and training provided him, he would have performed a field sobriety test to determine the extent (if any) of Ethan’s alleged intoxication. He didn’t and now it’s put not only him in a bad spot, but his partners that night, as well as the integrity of his flailing department that is already suffering a bad reputation as is.”
Mr. Castaneda says that he chatted with Deputy Keith to get information from the officer. He says that Keith acknowledges that Ethan was respectful and shared that he didn’t see the officer, but still expressed fear for his safety (which Castaneda cites as the same answer Keith gave the judge during the initial hearing when asked why Ethan was detained so long). He shares that Keith didn’t know what Ethan’s B.A.C. was despite the fact that Keith’s report says that Ethan tested positive for alcohol consumption.
To understand his criticism of his son’s treatment, Alex refers Pulse readers to items like Rule 6 of the Tennessee Rules of Juvenile Procedure or the Rutherford County Standard Operating Procedures. His understanding is that “a juvenile is to be held no more than 72 hours and to be afforded the first available court date for hearing.” According to Alex, Ethan was locked up for 84 hours and in custody for almost 90 hours.
Mr. Castaneda says that he asked Keith why a juvenile was held past the 72-hour window, to which he said Keith had no response. Further pressing the question, Alex asked the RCSO deputy why Ethan didn’t go before the magistrate Friday morning or afternoon, since those would have been the most immediate court dates available. He said that Deputy Keith’s response was a chuckle and “because I didn’t get the paperwork done on time. So he’ll just have to sit there until Monday.”
Alex’s criticism isn’t limited to Deputy Keith or the RCSO. Mr. Castaneda tells the Pulse that he chatted with both The Honorable Jennings Jones and Juvenile ADA Leslie Collum, and claims that neither could explain to him why his son was in RCSO custody for 90 hours (with both referring him to the Juvenile Detention Center,) and says that he’s “never seen such incompetence in one system before.”
The economic effect to the family has been one that’s steadily grown since October. Between attorney fees, the towing cost of Ethan’s vehicle, hotel and travel costs for Alex to be present for the first court appearance, and the hospital bills for Ethan’s visit that the family is expected to pay, Mr. Castaneda’s last estimate of the damages has cost about $9,100 thus far (with the legal fees only accounting for two court appearances). In addition, he says that his son’s house arrest has affected his social life and emotional health, and that the stress of the incident is “going to follow him for the rest of his lifetime.”
Local attorney Amanda Gentry represents Ethan Castaneda.
“In general,” Gentry shares, the time that Ethan was detained “is directly in opposition to the standard operating procedures, the Tennessee Code Annotated, and Tennessee Rules of Juvenile Procedure.”
She shares that the problem is bigger than Ethan, providing that “Rutherford County detains children at approximately two times the statewide rate, and their written policies mandate detention for certain offenses. But the statute 37-1-114(c) explicitly prohibits detention in this exact situation. In this particular case, the law enforcement officer delayed turning in the paperwork, intentional or otherwise, which resulted in a violation of all mechanisms in place designed to avoid this exact situation.”
Gentry offered the Pulse a comment from Lynn Duke, Director of Rutherford County Juvenile Detention that she says points a general problem with holding juveniles.
In the memo, sent by Duke to a local law enforcement official, the Juvenile Detention Center director offers her philosophy regarding having juveniles held, saying “Please remind your fellow officers that all they have to do is have a conversation with JDC staff. If they say ‘I really want this kid held,’ 9 times out of 10 we can make it happen.”
Duke is one of three parties currently targeted in a lawsuit claiming a 15-year-old suffering from mental health issues was locked in solitary confinement; allegedly, the teen was held in seclusion for 23 hours a day with no books or other materials and that his cell window was covered with a board.
Gentry doesn’t deny the potential for danger to the officers in the incident, but still raises some valid questions. She cites Alex’s professional concerns about the lack of personal protective clothing (“reflective gear”), the general environment of the traffic stop, and the overall responsibilities of the officers to provide a safe roadway for both themselves and traveling motorists. She maintains the innocence of her client. In her review of the dash-cam footage from the incident, she says that Ethan was not driving recklessly. Her professional assessment of the situation is one that might imply exaggeration on the accounts of the officers; most likely, Ethan did not actually almost kill the officer.
Gentry also states that the officers were in the middle of the road from 11:52–11:55 p.m. talking.
As the trial date approaches for the court to sift through this matter, questions swirl: Is it fair to state that Ethan was driving recklessly? Is it the responsibility of RCSO officers to make sure that the roads are safe? Do the actions of the RCSO reflect the best interests of the county? Or could this situation have been handled better?