If you are one of the 14,223 victims of Montgomery County’s sessions court a remedy for your plight may lie in that court’s limited authority to impose fines.
If any of the three judges in that court have imposed a fine on you beyond F$50, it is an illegal imposition you can challenge under the constitution.
By David Tulis
The constitution limits the power of judges to impose fines, giving it generally to the people through the jury — or through the general assembly.
“No fine shall be laid on any citizen of this state that shall exceed fifty dollars,” the constitution says at article 6, section, 14, “unless it shall be assessed by a jury of his peers, who shall assess the fine at the time they find the fact, if they think the fine should be more than fifty dollars.”
(The essayist is a journalist, not a dispenser of legal advice. Nothing in this essay should be construed as legal advice. For legal advice, consult a licensed and competent attorney. See my first report about this noted humiliation of the people of Tennessee. – DJT)
In sum, no citizen has to pay any fine past “fifty dollars” if it is not “assessed by a jury of his peers” who have to fix the fine when they “find the fact” and render a verdict.
Judges are authorized by statute to impose fines above F$50 when the statute found to have been violated dictates a fine. The constitutional provision applies “only where there is a discretion in assessing the amount of the fine,” according to an 1873 opinion upheld in 1911 and 1914, as cited in notes on court rulings in the code. Courts, clearly, have sided against the constitution and upheld specific fines. Assuming particular fines are allowed, the wiggle room in Montgomery are fines assessed by judges violative of what remains of the constitutional rule.
What to do in Montgomery County
Montgomery County’s sessions courts operate with a judge only — Ken Goble, Jr., Wayne Shelton and Ray Grimes.
No jury was empaneled to hear your case. Therefore, if a fine of more than $50 is imposed, the fine amount has to be explicit under the statute.
Learn more by looking up the code violation section online. Lexis Nexis publishes the whole of Tennessee law online here. https://www.lexisnexis.com/hottopics/tncode/
If you not sure how to proceed, call the sessions court clerk to ask for a Tennessee Code annotated citation in your conviction. Once you figure out how the free Lexis Nexis code webpages work, read the provisions under which you have been ruled guilty, especially penalty provisions.
A fine imposed in connection with a person who “drives a motor vehicle when the person’s privilege to do so is cancelled, suspended, or revoked commits a Class B misdemeanor *** shall be punished by confinement for not less than two (2) days nor more than six (6) months, and there may be imposed, in addition, a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000)” (TCA 55-50-504).
Since the fine is not specified, a jury alone determines the amount of the fine when your guilt is determined.
No sessions court or city court judge who rules you guilty has authority to impose any fine in the lofty realm past $50.
This provision in the Tennessee constitution exists to limit exposure of the people to arbitrary, vengeful or careless acts by judges, who are state employees liable to favor unjustly the state whenever it assails a citizen with civil or criminal charges. The jury’s power to fine an offender for unspecified amounts past 50 dollars is a protection of what the constitution calls “a free people” (bill of rights, article 1, section 24).
Now it gets confusing: fees & your waiver
But the fine may not be what has bitten you. It could be so-called court costs, a form of tax that the courts impose on the people accused by the state for some harmless paper infraction.
The Clarksville uproar is “typical of government out of control and a department of safety out control,” says Herbert Moncier, a Knoxville attorney.‡ “They do what the hell they want to with a big leather boot upon the backs of the people of this state” under the false claim of executive privilege and authority, he says.
People who have a case heard in a nonjury sessions court sign a waiver to a right of indictment and trial, he says in an interview. That means you waive the right to have a jury determine the fine. Courts deem the right of a jury fine to be waived if you have waived the right to an indictment and jury trial, Mr. Moncier says, “betting my left gonad.”
But the Gnome of Strawberry Plains, a quietspoken carpenter who has litigated freedom issues and been a defendant, says waiving a right to a jury trial and entering into sessions jurisdiction doesn’t void the rule limiting judges’ assessment of fines. But “I’m not sure about this.”
Court fees — tax for being prosecuted
Your sessions judge may be charging you hundreds of paper dollars in fees, but have limited himself to F$50.
State law varies in how it imposes fines. A criminal case against a person unlawfully carrying a weapon on school property, for example, may include a fine “not to exceed three thousand dollars.” (TCA 39-17-1309). The amount is to be fixed by a jury at the time of trial, and cannot be decided in any sessions or city court.
The power of juries to impose fines beyond $50 seems muddled or undone in the way the statute presents this power. In the sentencing reform act of 1989, the discussion of felony sentences clearly refers to the jury: “[T]he jury may assess a fine not to exceed fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), unless otherwise provided by statute.” But in discussing misdemeanors (one year or less prison term allowed) the act presents fines in jury-forgetting shorthand: “(1) Class A misdemeanor, not greater than eleven (11) months, twenty-nine (29) days or a fine not to exceed two thousand five hundred dollars ($2,500), or both, unless otherwise provided by statute.” Though the jury is not mentioned, any fine past F$50 must be decided by a jury.
Or the judge can impose a F$50 fine and move on.
Is state real criminal?
Statutes do not overturn constitutional protections, and constitutional provisions are assumed to control even if they are not explicitly mentioned in statute. Still, state government has violated its covenant among God, the people and itself (the three parties that create the biblical conception of human government).
➤ The general assembly gets around the constitution by saying fines are taxes. For example, a person convicted of a sex offense has to pay a “litigation tax” of up to F$3,000) as “determined by the court.” Five percent of the fine is kept by the court clerk, and 95 percent “shall be deemed a litigation tax” (TCA 39-13-709).
➤ Sessions and city courts are civil in nature, though they exercise what most generously could be called a hybrid jurisdiction, quasi-criminal and quasi-civil. The exercise of this police authority civilly is the basis of what fairly is called commercial government, where civil disputes let the state criminalize the citizen for the exercise of his rights protected by the constitution.
➤ Finally, the constitutional reference to fifty dollars is to 50 lawful constitutional dollars, not the federal reserve system bank scrip that passes for money. But the general assembly, state courts and the executive branch in Nashville have joined in the federal conspiracy to deprive the people of the state of a reliable medium of exchange and store of value.
They pretend that F$50 in paper money is the same as fifty dollars in the state law, which refers to 50 one-dollar silver coins. The foundations of lawful money began its shift into paper in 1914 with the creation of the federal reserve system. Fifty dollars in 1913 is roughly equivalent to F$1,203 today, according to the bureau of labor’s inflation calculator.
‡ Herbert Moncier, Knoxville attorney, 865-546-7746