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Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System: Part 10 – Court Pleads and Crowds

“Clerk of Courts Eloise Gaither [predecessor of Melissa Harrell, the current Rutherford County Circuit Court Clerk] says Rutherford County’s population has grown by 172 percent since the court building opened in 1981,” according to the Insurance Journal article, “Overflowing Court Docket Creates Fire Hazard in Tenn.,” published in January 2008, that covered the Jan. 8, 2008 judicial building overcrowding, adding, “There were more than 530 cases on the General Sessions Court docket Tuesday and sheriff’s Sergeant Mike Potts said the hallways were entirely filled with people.”

Though the General Sessions Court Judges’ daily docket count seldom reaches such a high number of defendants to appear before a judge any given morning, it has come close to it several times over the years since my initial court date on Jan. 8, 2008. Half of the reported amount of such a chaotic court docket total for such a small building, resting in the northwest corner of the Square, is an average amount of daily cases in the General Sessions Criminal court.

Lisa Marchesoni

Marchesoni

The area-wide coverage of the Jan. 8, 2008, overcrowding was one of the first utterances of plans to create a new judicial building, too, as Mayor Ernest Burgess stated Rutherford County had consultants meeting with court officials about the workload of the judges and hoped to work through 2030 “to deal with the increase in the criminal justice system,” according to Lisa Marchesoni, former newspaper journalist and current Public Relations officer for the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office.

Fast forward eight years, to the summer of May 2016 during a series of court dates for a couple of Violation of Probation charges I had. It was reported that Rutherford County allocated a $73 million budget for the replacement judicial building, with “$15 million [already] moved from the General Debt Service Fund [a sub-fund of the county’s general fund containing money designated to pay county debts] to the General Capital Project fund [a sub-fund within the county’s general fund designated for county projects such as the judicial building and the accompanying, jointly owned Murfreesboro/Rutherford County parking garage] to provide cash flow for the Judicial Center and Parking Garage projects,” according to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Division of Local Government Audit in last fiscal year’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report of Rutherford County, Tennessee.

Public Intoxication
Under Tennessee law, Public Intoxication is a Class C misdemeanor, which is the lowest-level misdemeanor category among three misdemeanor classifications (A, B and C). A Class C misdemeanor carries the least severe punishments of the three misdemeanor classifications of a “fine not to exceed $50, or imprisonment in the county jail or workhouse for not longer than 30 days, or both fine and imprisonment,” as explained in Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) section 40-35-111, or the law written as it is specifically meant “on the books” in Tennessee which stands as the General Sessions Judges’ sentencing guidelines.

Judge David Loughry

Judge David Loughry

Before his retirement as General Sessions Criminal Judge in September of 2014, part of Judge David Loughry’s job presiding over the General Sessions Criminal court was to determine I understood the charge brought against me and the subsequent actions of the court taken to move the case to a resolution. A usual day in court with Judge Loughry consisted of an 8 a.m. docket call, or when the judges call out a defendant’s name from a daily list of scheduled court appearances to come forward and begin formal due process in the presence of the court. There is a break after the 8 a.m. docket call, and court usually reconvenes around 10 am.

During the break, my case information was sent across the hall to the District Attorney’s office in room 106, where a judgment form was filled in with a plea deal by the D.A. on behalf of the State of Tennessee under TCA laws, attached to my case information packet and sent back to be read to me by Judge Loughry. Folks either waited in the 70-person maximum capacity courtroom, hung out in the hallway, or left because the Murfreesboro Fire Marshalls kicked them out of the building for overcrowding.

During this part of the court proceedings, Judge Loughry explained to me what the D.A.’s offer was, which was the punishment for Public Intoxication according to Tennessee law, and that if I pleaded guilty to the charge brought against me by the Murfreesboro Police Department, I would give up my rights to a trial and to an attorney, would be subject to the fullest extent of the law monetarily ($50 fine), as well as be obligated to serve a 30-day sentence at 940. In this case, though, Judge Loughry substituted the law’s corresponding jail time of 30 days imprisonment with an equal-in-length probationary period supervised by a privately owned probation-management company the county contracted to handle their misdemeanor probation cases a couple of years prior.

I signed under a paragraph on the judgment form that states, “I hereby acknowledge that I understand the foregoing rights, and without force, or threats, or promises by any person, I do hereby VOLUNTARILY plead GUILTY to the offense with which I am charged in this case, and I hereby WAIVE (give up) all of my foregoing rights, and in particular, I waive my rights to be represented by an attorney if I do not already have one, and my right to a trial by jury, and my right to have any fine greater than $50.00 assessed by a jury, and I request a disposition of my case in the Court of General Sessions of Rutherford County, Tennessee, with my consent that such court be vested, in my case, with all the authority that otherwise would be conferred on a jury.”

Defendants have to sign a separate Waiver of Attorney section right below the previously mentioned waiver of rights on the judgment form to complete the process of waiving their rights for the courts. This one states, “Comes now the defendant in the above referenced matter and would show unto the Court the following: (1) I have been informed that I have the absolute right to be represented, at every stage in this proceeding, by an attorney of my choosing, or, if I am indigent and cannot afford an attorney, I may apply for the Public Defender. (2) After being so informed, it is my desire to waive my rights and proceed in this matter without legal representation. (3) Being of sound mind, I am competent to make this decision and do so without fear, threat, or coercion of any kind and that I am not under the influence of any intoxicant.”

After this, Judge Loughry ruled I had plead guilty and was not found guilty or not guilty, as would happen when a defendant goes to trial. I was then directed across the courtroom to a blonde lady at one of the wooden tables signing people up for probationary periods supervised/managed by PCC, who allowed me to pay the $349 court costs and fines for an additional “supervision fee” of $46.

For the charge of Public Intoxication in 2008, The bill of costs states I paid $62 for the clerk fee, $4 for judicial commission, $40 for the Arrest, the $50 fine, $12 jail fee, $29.50 state tax, $26.50 county tax, $7 penalty tax (for not paying that day), $45.50 county litigation tax, and handwritten in by the General Sessions clerk that day is a $12.50 charge for a Public Defender fund, $10 for additional county tax, $5 for the booking fee (940) and $45 for the victim assistance assessment fund, all totaling my $349.

The $349 court costs and fines plus PCC’s supervised probation fees totaling $51 were paid in full through PCC with student loan money and all terms and conditions of Judge David Loughry’s orders were met by Feb. 5, 2008.

All in all, it cost $400 for a morning in court to plead guilty to a Public Intoxication charge in 2008.

MTSU population
When set to a graph, MTSU’s contribution to the county population over the course of my residence in Murfreesboro, as well as throughout my involvement in the Rutherford County Criminal Justice system, displays a plateau when showing MTSU’s total enrollment numbers per year over the last 13 years.

In 2003, when I first arrived in Murfreesboro to attend MTSU, the highest head count (usually during the fall semester, as some students don’t return for the spring semester) was 21,744, according to MTSU’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, Planning and Research (IEPR), who keeps track of the total number of students enrolled in a given year. I was one of that group of people concentrated on campus in the middle of Murfreesboro every week between the months of August and April every year.

It was a slow climb up to its 2010–11 school year peak; approximately 375 more students a year enrolled from 2003 to the 2007–08 school year, when that additional average almost doubled to an influx of 626 more students that year and the subsequent 2008–09 school year, when I began my encounters with the law enforcement part of the local criminal justice system. The 2009–10 school year added 1,316, and by 2010–11 MTSU had a head count of 26,430. The following school year’s total tally was 26,442 students attending MTSU.

MTSU’s growth hit a plateau and steadily decreased in student body numbers by an average of 878 students a year until present date where the current number of students concentrated in the middle of town at the end of the 2016–17 school year is reportedly 22,050, approximately where it was when I arrived in Murfreesboro in 2003.

Criminal Trespass
I appeared at the Rutherford County Judicial Building in front of Judge Loughry again on Monday June 7, 2010, under the charge of Criminal Trespass. According to the police report made on my arrest date for the charge, I was “in violation of T.C.A. 39-14-405,” which states the specific criteria in order to be charged with Criminal Trespass in the state of Tennessee in 2010 and that it falls under a Class C misdemeanor, like a Public Intoxication charge. The Rutherford County court proceedings for a charge of equal weight as my previous Public Intoxication charge were different, though.

To begin with, there was no media attention around an overcrowded court house, and this criminal misdemeanor charge was ultimately agreed to be retired when brought back between docket calls from the D.A.’s office. The retirement agreement entailed I waive my rights to trial and an attorney like in the Public Intoxication case, but mentioned that I represented myself, or as it’s simply stated, “Pro Se,” on the General Sessions’ “Agreed Order of Retirement” form that is the equivalent of the Public Intoxication’s Judgment form. I was not clear on this at the time, as I had forgot that part of my brief Latin studies at MTSU, and “Pro Se” was not defined in court, so I unknowingly represented myself.

The retirement agreement also explains, “upon agreement by the District Attorney General and the Defendant. . . if no action is taken in this matter and all conditions are complete the defense may petition the Court to dismiss this case and expunge the pertinent records as provided by law,” so long as I remain on “Good and Lawful conduct,” “Report to PCC 1 per month until Conditions met,” “Pay Costs through PCC with an administrative fee of $35/month,” and “Stay Away” from Tiger Hill, as was written in the retirement conditions. That was the agreement. As long as I stayed out of trouble, paid my dues once pleading guilty, and stayed away from Tiger Hill, the case would be dismissed and expunged from my record.

I signed it, as I did with the Public Intoxication charge, agreeing to plead guilty to the D.A.’s retirement deal, and was placed on probation through PCC for 11 months and 29 days, instead of the 30-day length of time T.C.A. section 40-35-111 (which specifies a Class C misdemeanor’s punishment under TN law) guidelines.

For the charge of Criminal Trespass in 2010, the bill of costs states I paid $63 clerk’s fee, $4 judicial commission, $40 for the arrest, $29.50 in state tax, $26.50 in county tax, $15 penalty tax (for not paying that day), $63.85 county litigation tax, $12.50 for a Public Defender fee, $45 for victim assistance assessment fund, $10 additional county tax, $25 for court security, $10 booking fee (940), and $1 for a victim notification fee, all totaling $345.35.

On top of the $345.35 in court costs and fines, which was $4.65 cheaper than the Public Intoxication charge, and the additional $285.65 (83% of the initial court costs) I paid to PCC for their supervision costs and fees over the course of 7 months until Jan. 20, 2011, when I no longer had to report monthly, meaning I was on “unsupervised” probation, my 11 month 29 day probationary period for the charge of Criminal Trespass ended on June 6, 2011 while I was working as a pizza delivery driver for a local Domino’s pizza restaurant.

All in all, it costs $631 for a morning in court to plead guilty to Criminal Trespass in 2010.

Around the time this Criminal Trespass case was closed in the courts in the beginning of June, 2011, the court’s docket numbers of people like myself going through the General Sessions Criminal courts and paying into the county’s general fund because of their actions averaged 259 cases a day by the end of 2011, according to rutherfordcountytn.gov.

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