Chattanooga police officer Ben Piazza faces a double whammy when it comes to claims against him in court. One of them is a beating of a citizen at a traffic stop that is arguably a crime and most certainly a tort.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
The other whammy is less visible, but just as powerful in the long term. And that is the vulnerability Mr. Piazza faces under transportation administrative notice upon his employer. The police powers reform notice in Chattanooga is a trap laid before every officer in the Chattanooga police department who at a traffic stop springs Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55 on a member of the citizenry.
This week, state prosecutor Neal Pinkston dropped all the charges against Mr. Piazza’s victim, Frederico Wolfe, recognizing the power of the jury to reject any arrest marred by violations of law and the certainty of their doing so on Hamilton County. Mr. Wolfe had been blue-lighted, arrested, beaten and charged March 10 in a night-time commercial enforcement stop on Lee Highway.
Who is Ben Piazza?
Mr. Piazza is 34 years old and has been a city employee since January 2013. According to Chattanooga Times Free Press, has had a troubled tenure in the department, with his record showing acts of prankish nature, lying to his supervisors and one abuse of power complaint. That complaint was called unfounded because the department could not find his accuser, but he was given an oral reprimand for not having his cruiser camera operating. https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2019/jan/23/internal-files-allege-lying-pranking-rudeness/487164/
He is abstemious in his use of social media, and may be a private, quiet person as there are no mugshots and photos of him online. He is a standard American with a social security number that verified by his employer and, by all appearances, is a U.S. person and taxpayer who files 1040 returns under belief that policing is an activity subject to the federal excise tax (generally understood as a direct tax on individuals).
Mr. Piazza has paperwork totaling 50 pages that seems routine. He took the Chattanooga police job after having learned the police business in Athens, Ga., where he worked about four years, at least part of that time under Lt. Nicholas Soriano for F$2,200 a week. In that job he says he “[protected] life and property” and “[enforced] federal, state and local laws.”
As a teen, Mr. Piazza had been committed by his parents to four years in the Roman Catholic church’s Benedictine Military School in Savannah, Ga. The school was founded by monks whose original purpose in the sector starting in 1874 was to convert to papal submission blacks, of the same race as Mr. Piazza’s victim Mr. Wolfe. The school’s goal was to be like the Citadel or VMI “in the Southern military tradition” and to “form men of virtue and integrity *** prepared for life-long learning and service to their faith and civic communities,” a school webpage says.
After graduating in 2004, he worked as a restaurant cook for outfits such as University of Georgia food services, Papa Johns, Amici’s Italian Cafe and DePalma’s Italian Cafe.
Mr. Piazza is married, and the redaction of a copy of his exemption form for federal tax withholding keeps from public view any hint of whether he and his wife have children claimed as dependents for tax purposes.
Mr. Piazza vs. Officer Piazza
The personal details are important because they put a human face on the aggressor in the Wolfe arrest and bring to view the officer’s humanity, which has been studiously disregarded by Ken Smith and other members of city council. The council’s failure to obey state law as cited in transportation administrative notice puts Mr. Piazza and his personal estate in stark naked public view.
When Mr. Piazza acts as a police officer and city employee No. 70792, he is protected by state immunity for lawful acts done under authority or under policy and pursuant to his training. When he injures someone as Mr. Wolfe while acting lawfully, liability attaches to the corporation, not to the individual office holder or agent.
However, if Mr. Piazza acts without warrant, acts without probable cause, or acts outside the scope of the law, he is personally responsible for these wrongs. Liability attaches to his person, as well as to the corporation.
Mr. Wolfe’s attorney, Robert Flores, has the task of separating the man from the authority in any claims made against Mr. Piazza in his personal capacity. The distinction isn’t necessarily important. Mr. Flores may opt simply to sue the corporation to obtain the largest dollar amount to settle Mr. Wolfe. Mr. Piazza is sued in his official capacity.
But Mr. Piazza’s tantrum and fisticuffing deeds put him in the spotlight for an act done personally, which makes him and his wife’s combined property vulnerable to a tort claim.
Notice shifts legal landscape in city
Either way, whether suit attaches him personally or not, it can claim a second cause, if Mr. Flores is alert. That is the shift in the legal landscape created by Transportation Administrative Notice Tennessee, filed upon city government Feb. 20.
While the notice makes no explicit argument, it effectively declares that the police department does not have authority to enforce Title 55, Vehicles and Motor Vehicles (the state transportation law), against any party not involved in transportation. It is a commercial regulatory statute by the state upon the commercial user, the for-profit shipper and trucker using the people’s assets and infrastructure for gain and private profit.
Tennessee and its municipal creatures, the cities, have no authority in any way to make a claim upon private use of the road, which is protected by the Tennessee constitution’s bill of rights.
Since Feb. 20, Chattanooga has been notified of the limits of Title 55, and the notice creates a new cause of action against Mr. Piazza. Mr. Piazza may not have any personal knowledge of transportation administrative notice. But because of the rules of notice, he has full knowledge of it in a legal sense.
He has what is called imputed knowledge as the agent of the principal. The principal is city government and the agent is every officer who enforces Title 55 in a way that, shall we put it diplomatically, is overbroad. I put the city on notice to end what I told city council is an unjust, illegal and destructive practice that affects blacks, immigrants and the poor the most, but also damages the rights of everyone protected by the Tennessee constitution, according to a press release.
Mr. Piazza’s beating of Mr. Wolfe is bad news for Mayor Andy Berke, Mr. Piazza’s ultimate boss, because it is the clearest instance of the city’s bad faith and the officer’s bad faith. Both knew that Mr. Piazza has no authority to enforce Title 55 upon someone without first checking to see if that person is acting in a commercial capacity. The notice about the scope of state law should have given heed to city council, Mr. Berke and to the officer. It put them on alert about the law. It should have prompted a reform in the police department’s traffic stop protocol.
But it didn’t. The city is ignoring the notice. Mayor Berke, a practicing attorney, is ignoring it. Chief David Roddy is ignoring it. City council is ignoring it. Disregarding a recorded and advertised legal notice on a matter of law and fact is sheer folly.
Ignoring transportation notice is ceding to its claims, admitting its claims, leaving stand its most vital distinction between travel and transportation.
Its main claim is as follows: Travel is at liberty and free under the law and under the constitution; transportation is regulable in the public interest, as the commercial use of the road affects the public health, safety and welfare, and is subject to police power.
Mr. Flores, in his lawsuit against the city, has added ammo in his war chest. For Mr. Piazza to have stopped Mr. Wolfe KNOWING he was not involved in transportation is an act of extraordinary malice and recklessness. It may well be he will be held to personal account for this wrong.