A police department in the western part of Tennessee has become embroiled in a constitutional challenge with respect to hundreds or more criminal arrests that appear to have been carried out improperly over the past 15 years. Lawyers for several former criminal defendants who were arrested and prosecuted in the city of Jackson have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the city and others. They allege that the arrests were void because the affiants making out the arrest warrants were not put under oath by the City Court Clerk. The error can give an accused a criminal defense that may succeed in having an arrest, prosecution or conviction dismissed.
Arrest and search warrants must be prepared and executed according to detailed legal specifications. In general, most arrests must be supported by an arrest warrant unless one of the recognized exceptions to a warrant exists. Where a warrant is necessary, an affidavit is executed by the arresting officer stating the probable cause grounds for the arrest. Where the affiant is not put under oath, it destroys the legal nature of the document and makes the arrest warrant invalid.
The seriousness of the matter arises from the fact that once the arrest warrant is seen to be void, every action taken against the accused thereafter is also void. Each such action would be a violation of that person's constitutional rights, including the arrest, holding the person in detention, and compelling him or her to go through a prosecution. Thus, the victim of the illegal process incurs a civil rights claim under federal law against the state actors. However, it is possible that the statute of limitations could preclude the monetary suits.
The individuals who suffered from such a violation may have other rights and remedies available irrespective of the issues regarding monetary compensation. They may be able to petition the court for the removal of their convictions and their records. Criminal defense attorneys throughout Tennessee will likely be investigating their cases a little more closely to see whether the fatal arrest warrant procedure may have been used in other parts of the state as well.