When Davidson County Sheriff’s Office deputies shackled Juana Villegas, then a 33-year-old mother of three, to the hospital bed — releasing her just long enough to give birth before replacing the irons on her wrists — they violated her civil rights. That much has been determined by a court.
The issue set to go before a jury this week is what compensatory damages Villegas is entitled to, if any, following U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr.’s April 27 order granting partial summary judgment in Villegas’ favor.
Haynes’ ruled that sheriff’s deputies, and therefore Metro, ran afoul of Villegas’ 14th Amendment rights to due process when they shackled her to a bed at various times during the final stages of her labor, took them off during her delivery, then replaced the shackles shortly thereafter. DCSO deputies also denied Villegas the use of a breast pump during her postpartum recovery. Haynes denied Villegas’ claims of violations against her 1st and 4th Amendment rights of familial association and personal privacy, respectively.
In this week’s damages trial, Villegas is seeking compensation for physical and emotional pain and distress, as well as any future treatment of such. Whatever amount of damages Villegas may be awarded will also be in the hands of the jurors.
Yet Villegas’ immigration status and pending deportation remain up in the air, likely to be settled after this week’s dust clears.
Villegas’ plight began the day before Independence Day in 2008, when a Berry Hill police officer pulled her over for a traffic violation that was later dismissed on a technicality, then arrested her for driving without a valid driver’s license. Upon her arrest, the officer transported her to a Davidson County jail where she was held until July 5 — the courts of course closed for the July 4 holiday.
In jail, a sheriff’s deputy, per the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s 287(g) program, screened Villegas and determined she was not only in the U.S. illegally but also had been deported once and re-entered the country illegally. The deputy placed an ICE detainer on her, meaning she could remain in jail for up to 48 hours.
On the evening of July 5, deputies transported Villegas from the Davidson County jail to a female correctional facility on Harding Pike. At 10 o’clock that night, her water broke.
An ambulance transported her, hands and legs restrained, to Nashville General Hospital, where DCSO deputies kept her shackled to a hospital bed for her labor and recovery. Deputies unshackled her only long enough for her to deliver her son.
Villegas’ attorneys — William L. Harbison, Phillip F. Cramer and John L. Farringer IV, all of the Sherrard & Roe law firm — along with immigration attorney Elliot Ozment, all declined to talk about the case on the record. Metro attorneys Kevin Klein and Allison Bussell — who represent the DCSO as part of Metro — also chose to save the talking for the courtroom.
Villegas’ attorneys have claimed that since her incarceration three summers ago, the mother has suffered back and leg pain preventing her from sitting for long periods. They’ve also said she has flashbacks of the ordeal, triggered in the presence of the son who was born into the middle of a controversy that’s made national headlines.
Attorneys for Metro, representing the sheriff’s office, have claimed that while Villegas may be emotionally distressed, it is only because her pending deportation weighs heavily on her mind — and through no fault of DCSO — and therefore Metro should owe her nothing.
Metro’s argument is that Villegas, and the expert witnesses that testified on her behalf, “drastically overstated the damages, if any, that the sheriff’s office caused her.”
That notion, Villegas’ attorneys argued in court filings, flies in the face of Haynes’ order finding partial liability of the sheriff’s office.
If the immigration-status path is one Metro wants to steer the trial down, then the Sherrard & Roe attorneys and Ozment look prepared to address the concern, stating in a court filing that it’s “currently unlikely that [Villegas] will be deported but instead will receive at least deferred action, as she has informally received for the past three years.”
They later state, “Given the national and international support for Ms. Villegas, it is unlikely she will ever be deported.”
Prior to the deadline for this article, Haynes had yet to rule on pretrial motions to determine what testimony would be admissible for the damages trial.
While it may seem like a bold thumb-to-nose statement, the attorneys go on to lay out four potential options they said could allow Villegas to avoid deportation: private congressional legislation, humanitarian parole, a cancellation of removal and a “U” visa, which would appear to hold the most water for Villegas and her attorneys.
The federal government, according to Villegas’ court filing, issues about 10,000 such “U” visas (named after a section of federal law) per year to those who “have suffered physical or mental abuse” as a victim of certain criminal activity, including unlawful criminal restraint and false imprisonment.
If, down the road, a judge awarded Villegas such a visa, according to court documents, she could remain in the country on an employment authorization card and eventually obtain legal permanent resident status.
Nashville attorney David Esquivel, who has followed the trial with interest, said the damages portion of the case is in a way the culmination of the process to hold Metro accountable for the improper treatment of a pregnant woman in labor, regardless of her undocumented status.
“It’s an important trial because it sort of exposes what kind of basic human dignities you are going to give people,” he said. “Is it going to be found OK to treat people the way Juana Villegas was treated because of their immigration status?”