Traffic court is a venue for maintaining among the commonest people the idea that no liberty of travel by car exists and that Americans, especially the poor, must make obeisance to popular legal fiction.
The traffic court in East Ridge opens Tuesday at 3 with nearly every seat occupied under the gaze of Judge Cris Helton.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
The court, with more than 100 defendants a week, is a convenience that the administrative state grants itself so that it does not have to deal with citizens’ constitutional rights by giving them an indictment and a full criminal trial for purportedly criminal offenses. City courts allow for a high volume of citations and arrests, and relieve the pressure that would otherwise make the system explode — or choke and halt.. Without so-called inferior courts, the modern administrative and police state would be impossible.
A common charge on the East Ridge docket is “No DL.” It hits members of immigrant families the hardest. The charge is drawn from Tenn. Code Ann. 55-50-351, an ill-fitting law used to insist that all travel by car is transportation and subject to Title 55, the transportation law, and that even private users of the road are subject to commercial enforcement.
The charge stings Mexican and Honduran newcomers who are outside the scope of the statute, but whom are to be intimidated into thinking it applies to them. And no one in city court knows better, neither judge, officer nor defendant.
Hispanics such as Juvelio Arreaga and Salvador Munoz face this charge because they are afraid to apply for a driver license or they are told they cannot unless they have legal papers. By using cars outside commerce, these newcomers living in a free America exercise rights that few East Ridge natives know they have — that of free travel for private purposes on the people’s roadways, rights evident in the construction of Tennessee law and many court cases starting in the early 1900s.
The charge hits many African-Americans, as well.
➤ Christina Wright, 34, is a proud five-year shift manager at a Brainerd McDonald’s who has two daughters age 17 and 20. No driver license, no tag, no insurance. Her case is delayed until June 19, at which time she still will lack a driver license. “Every time you go, the test gets trickier and trickier,” she says, “but I have proof that I have been trying to get my license. *** I’ve never had a driver license a day in my life.” She also indicates she had a license that got revoked. “Sometimes the bus takes a long time, and when you got to be at work, you got to be at work dependable; you got to be there on time, because when you not there on time and you get fired, what the judge going to say? He’s still going to say you still got to get your license; you still got to pay court fine. So any way you go, the system is still winning.”
➤ Kanisha Davis, 22, works at VW and is proud of her job. She has never applied for a DL, but somehow ended up with one that got revoked, thanks to revocation-for-nonpayment-of-court-debt scheme of Department of Safety and Homeland Security commissioner David Purkey. The scheme to create licenses and revoke them to punish poor state debtors figures in U.S. district court judge Alita Trauger’s remarkable March 26 memorandum in a civil rights case in Nashville focusing on a long train of abusive statute and departmental action (see Page 11, particularly). Miss Davis’ “revoked and reg vio” case is being continued
➤ Omerrieal Woods, a VW worker in his mid-20s, went through Judge Helton’s court and played it safe by offering no legal objections to the charge of “no DL.” He had not applied for one, but had been administratively assigned a driver license, which the state revoked. Given his low risks, Mr. Woods opted not to defend his rights before Judge Helton, and to take his licks.
A second major state complaint in traffic court is against blacks whose paperwork under the Tennessee commercial driving statute is out of order — revoked or suspended license.
➤ One defendant is marked as being before the judge “10th and last time.” Jeremy Sheppard, 33, is charged with revoked DL, no insurance, no registration. He is sliding down a “slippery slope,” Mr. Sheppard says, having had a revoked license for 10 years
“What do you want me to do?” the judge asks. Mr. Sheppard directs the case transferred to the Hamilton County grand jury for an indictment — a delaying tactic for a jobless would-be techworker. He owes $3,500 in fines and court costs from an case 10 years ago in which he ran a stop sign, the fine for which he refused to pay. “It started a snowball effect. I didn’t pay that, so they suspended my license. *** So I’d get caught driving or a moving violation, and the fines slowly started to add up. Everytime you get caught driving, that’s another, you know, thousand bucks or so.”
➤ Tiffany McQuinn has a suspended license and “has been caught driving.” On the May 1 docket it says “7th time **** LAST TIME. She has $13,500 in court debt starting with a DUI fine from 10 years ago she is unable to pay. “You cannot get on a payment plan unless that is paid first,” about $1,400, says the waitress and divorced mom with two children at home.
“The judge has worked with me several times. But there is literally nothing I can say: I cannot afford it. I work. I do not receive food stamps. I do not receive any kind of public assistance at all. *** I cannot afford it. With me not being able to drive, I have to pay to get cabs, Uber, and my son plays football, basketball, baseball, and he has to be able to get there. His dad helps out, but I have to do my part, too.” Her weekly income is $750.
Mrs. McQuinn is entirely convinced of the legality of her prosecution — that no property right exists in movement by car or truck on the road and that no one may use a car apart from state permission.` “You cannot. You cannot. If you are on the road and you don’t have a license, you’ll go to jail. You will.”
A third category of criminal charge arises from the remaining leg of commercial government in East Ridge: Improper registration of a car or truck as a motor vehicle (expired tax receipt, AKA “expired tag”). A fourth category of charge: Violation of rules of the road — “due care,” “red light,” “seatbelt” or “speeding.”
Casual corner for deciding cases
East Ridge’s court, like all others in Tennessee, upholds a legal fiction that Tenn. Code Ann. Title 55, particularly chapter 50, the uniform classified and commercial driver license act, applies to private citizens using the roads for pleasure or private purposes or exercising of their unnumbered rights.
Traffic court is a venue in which no law is cited and debated. It is no place really for attorneys — in the first 90 minutes April 24 of traffic court proceedings one attorney appeared — Rip Biggs, who shares office space with noted senior local attorney Hank Hill downtown, a man who also has an occasional case on the docket.
The volume of people is so great, the time so short, that to argue law, jurisdiction or other matters seems like it would be out of keeping with the purpose of the gathering, which is to dispose of cases without contest, without dispute and apart from sticky law. No doubt a little resistance on points of law (vs. points of fact) would ease Judge Helton’s sense of monotony.
The state’s interest in such courts is that they help maintain its theory of a constitutional right having been made extinct. East Ridge’s commitment to that pretense is minimal, given Judge Helton’s voluminous dismissals and acts of clemency. But the city piggybacks off state custom for a drip-drip-drip of revenue collections, with fees running 3x or 5x the fines. Hardly ever does a fine exceed the “court cost” of $98.50. The fines are $10 and $30 for “driving with a license” or “driving on suspended,” with many cases dismissed on the spot on proof of compliance, with other cases continued to give the defendant time to “get right” with the state.
On April 24, the city took in $4,853 from traffic and criminal dockets, with $2,785 of that paid in cash and the rest by credit card.
Abused law scoops up Hispanics
People charged under the failure to exhibit statutes rarely make note that the law does not apply to non-licensees but to people who are license holders. The woodenly worded and hence entirely clear statute says, “Every licensee shall have the licensee’s license in immediate possession at all times when operating a motor vehicle and shall display it upon demand of any officer or agent of the department or any police officer of the state, county or municipality, except that where the licensee has previously deposited the license with the officer or court demanding bail, and has received a receipt from the officer or the court *** .”
The statute applies only to people with an equitable or commercial relationship with the state’s safety department because they’re involved in transportation and are involved in an activity subject to the exercise of its licensing and other regulatory powers.
East Ridge has been warned about the abuse of the exhibit on demand statute. Mayor Brent Lambert received an administrative notice May 17 and city council May 24 that makes clear the scope of the Tennessee transportation law is limited to people involved in transportation. Thanks to decades of legal custom to which no one from the defense bar objects, it appears East Ridge prematurely adjudicates transportation cases when the uniform administrative procedures act indicates they should be administered within the agency so that the accuser, the state, meet the requirement that it exhaust administrative remedies in any contested matter, with appeal being in Davidson County chancery court.
Practice might be fairly said to make such requirements “inoperable,” with minorities, immigrants and the poor being the system’s means of lubrication and profit.
Valerie Dave is one of many who struggles to make ends meet. “I just got a job and I get paid every two weeks,” she declares. Judge Helton immediately says, “July 31,” the date on which she can prove compliance with the transportation statute.
Osorio Mencia, charged with “No DL, No Ins, Due Care” on the docket, is ordered in one charge to pay $10 plus costs, and $15 plus costs on the other, with the insurance charge dismissed. The total take is $222 from this woman unable to utter a word of English.
Since dozens speak with difficulty, Beth Derthick serves as Spanish translator, hired by state government through a private contractor.
Jose Pedro Juan, an ambitious teenager from Guatemala who wants to own a construction business, admits guilt for speeding but Judge Helton dismisses the charge. The judge dismisses the “No Ins” charge, but demads courts costs for his troubles.
A woman named Cheryl is charged with no driver’s license, tinted window, no insurance. She can’t pay. “I just got a new job.” Replies Judge Helton: “I’m going to put this one over one more time for you to get a license and insurance.”
Says Tamika Thomas: “I just switched jobs so I need a little time.” She says she needs a month or two. Another defendant asks a year to get a license, but the judge gives her three months.
Judge Helton needs a few seconds for most people; complex cases with a discussion of the roadway circumstances get two minutes.
The cases fly by. One defendant, a young Hispanic woman, says she can’t get a driver license and doesn’t know why she can’t. Judge Helton dismisses her car tag registration charge. “It was just a tag light,” he explains.
Judge better than court
In traffic court the accuser, an entity called State of Tennessee, is absent, though it is ostensibly injured and victimized by the people for having its laws ignored, its peace and dignity slighted. The citation passes for the accuser, with the judge effectively taking the state’s side as accuser, but playing “fair” and mitigating the crime with easy dismissal of charges. Summary justice for social enforcement, as in former days doled out by justices of the peace.
Defendants pass out the door on the right side of the courtroom. They pass a window for court clerk Patricia Cassidy, with the lobby’s ornate water fountain pattering in the background.
Judge Helton is part of a game, and like other judges in area city courts, seems a better man than the jurisdiction itself with its hidden causes.
The state wins compliance among common citizens by using cop, deputy and trooper to give consequence to its extra-legal pilfering of Tennesseans. If the state earns a few bucks per case, so much the better. The state wins if it gets people uncomplainingly into court with no legal objection. It makes it easy to waive one’s constitutional rights, to make it the pragmatic and reasonable thing to do, as the offenses are not grave and consequences for ignoring commercial government not sever.
Getting defendants there is the main lesson, and city government shares in the winnings from among the poor.