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Navigating the Rutherford County Criminal Justice System: Part 11 – Packed DUI and Suspended License Dockets

DUI/Implied Consent
The General Sessions Criminal Court dockets (posted at rutherfordcountytn.gov) for the first half of 2013 show DUI day, which usually fell on Friday mornings, averaged nearly a full page of DUI charges and DUI-related charges.

After a person is charged with a crime, that charge becomes a case (or cases) to be seen by a General Sessions Criminal Court judge once it’s booked and scheduled for a court date. Their information—defendant’s name, charges, misdemeanor or felony, who pressed the charges against them and if they have a lawyer—are compiled into an alphabetical list of names with the corresponding charge(s) to create a collective list of recent crimes allegedly committed within Rutherford County. That collection of what appears to be a randomly assembled list of crimes—ranging anywhere from unlawful possession of a firearm to failure to give aid, from rape to incest, from hunting violations to prostitution, from falsifying a drug screen to child neglect, from the occasional TBI investigation’s growing-operation sting or drug-ring bust to a murder charge listed once in a blue moon or even PAWS-based charges such as animal cruelty, failure to register a pet or animals at large—is known as a docket.

Every morning that court is in session, a judge calls the names of the defendants on their dockets to appear before them in order to begin the defendant’s formal due process for the charge(s) brought against them.

One page of the judge’s daily court docket lists 50 cases to be seen by the judge (at least for a time, each page contained 50 names; the format changes occasionally). Dockets can be up to 10 pages long.

While both felony and misdemeanor cases are present on the General Sessions Criminal Court dockets, and sometimes in overabundance (which can create a fire hazard in the judicial building) a vast majority of these cases are misdemeanors, far outnumbering the felony charges going through the General Sessions Criminal Court.

When the dockets are seemingly assembled at random, made up of the examples previously mentioned and more, those dockets are referred to as all-charges-encompassed dockets. The most prevalent charges seen throughout all-charges-encompassed dockets posted on rutherfordcountytn.gov were marijuana and drug-related charges, alcohol-related charges, theft charges, violation of probation charges, domestic assault charges and driving on suspended or revoked license charges.

Among the all-charges-encompassed dockets, some charges occur more times than others in Rutherford County so much so that those who schedule court dates—be it the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, the clerk’s office or the judges themselves—organize similar, prevalent cases into its own docket, so it’s just a docket full of different people with the same charge to be dealt with in a single day.

Since the end of October 2011, when the Circuit Court Clerk’s office first began posting the judge’s daily dockets on the county website, charges prevalent enough in Rutherford County General Sessions Criminal Court to merit their own day once a week include violation of probation (VOP) charges, domestic assault charges, driving on suspended or revoked license charges and DUI/DUI-related charges.

VOP and domestic assault charges have always had their own day (sometimes two) once a week during the almost six-year span the online dockets cover. DUI and DUI-related charges, as well as driving on suspended/revoked license charges have made a rise in the dockets since 2011, gradually taking on their own day.

The number of DUI and DUI-related cases for the first half of 2013 is lower compared to the previous year, when DUI day dockets averaged around a page and a half, with the highest 2012 total being nearly three pages in April. DUI day was skipped every few weeks in 2012, though, before it steadied out and became a common weekly workload for the judges in the beginning of 2013. If there wasn’t a DUI day on a Friday in 2013, it’s probably because Judge McFarlin worked an extensive caseload on Tuesday and Wednesday, and first-offense DUIs could be a heavy presence on those days. The highest total caseload of DUI charges were handled in the third week of June 2013, when Judge Loughry moved through six pages of DUI charges on that Thursday and finished up the last half-page of them the next day. After that, DUI charges fell off to about a half-page until October 2013, when Judge Loughry began taking some of the weekdays off in mid-October while Judge McFarlin cut back to presiding over the General Sessions criminal court one or two days a week until mid-February 2014. By March of 2014, they were back at it.

There were eight court dates for the DUI/implied consent charges brought against me. Six of them occurred in the June 6, 2013, through Feb. 3, 2014, time frame.

The first two hearings were continuances. Then I missed the third court date. A capias (order of arrest) was released, an arrest warrant activated, and a courtesy notification from the sheriff’s office that a warrant had been issued for my arrest came in the mail about a week later.

Mid-warrant service, I ran to the judicial building to find anyone able to explain it to me. The judge’s deputy assistant, Jake Flatt, listened to my questions and advised me to go to the jail. During my questions-turned-explanation, though, he told me we could listen to court records of the previous court date (the second continuance) on Aug. 1, 2013, and showed me a big CD binder behind the deputy assistant’s desk where we could find a miscommunication, if any existed, between Judge Loughry and me. I emphatically agreed. Flatt quickly replied, “We don’t have that one.” I then asked to speak with a judge, a request he denied: “You can’t speak to a judge.”

I turned my head to the neighboring deputy assistant’s desk, where Judge McFarlin sat watching that whole conversation go down.

“They’re not here to help you, man,” I said to myself walking out of the judicial building right after that.

Attorneys around the area specializing in DUI cases advertise to those arrested for DUI charges by mailing them their information when the daily public arrest records are released by law enforcement offices. After my capias incident, I hired one of those attorneys, who would represent me for the next three court dates (another two of which were more continuances) as I worked to pay his attorney costs by the Feb. 3, 2014, court date, when the attorney was paid in full and my case was settled in court for the first time.

Driving Under the Influence is considered a Class A misdemeanor in the state of Tennessee, according to Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) law; penalties for a Class A misdemeanor can be found in TCA 55-10-403.

The DUI attorney negotiated a deal with the district attorney’s office while I waited in the first-floor hallway. When he returned, he explained what had just happened in the D.A.’s office, advised me and checked to see if it was okay to proceed with the guilty plea deal. He stood beside me in court, where I only spoke as I pleaded guilty to the DUI/implied consent charges, meaning I would serve seven days in 940 within a month of pleading guilty, pay a $525 fine, complete an alcohol/drug safety school class and a victim impact panel class, stay away from illegal drug activity or associate with anyone using illegal drugs, and have good and lawful conduct throughout and comply with all conditions of an 11-month and 29-day probationary period under the supervision and management of PCC.

The bill of cost filled out by the circuit court clerk’s office is broken down to $65 clerk’s fee, $6 judicial commission, $40 arrest charge, $525 fine, $2 sheriff/Workhouse mittimus (a document relating to the holding and/or transfer of a convicted felon), $29.50 state tax, $26.50 county tax, $10 booking fee, $10 bond fee, $10 for restitution fund, $15 penalty tax (for not paying that day), $1 for CLRF, $35 continuance fee for the extensions, $82 serving capias fee for the missed court date and arrest warrant issued, a $12 scire facias fee (which is like the arrest warrant issuance fee, but sent to the bail bondsman who bonded me out of jail), $65.85 for county litigation, $12.50 to the public defender fund, $45 to the victim assistance assessment fund, $25 for court security, $3 for the victim notification fund, and $5 ARC—totaling $1,025.35. No one who knows what the abbreviated/acronym-labeled fees are could be found by a clerk at the clerk’s office at the times I checked.

Driving on Suspended License
On Jan. 31, 2014, four days before my Feb. 3, 2014, DUI/implied consent court date, an MTSU Police Department officer pulled me over next to campus for expired license plate tags while I was on the way to work. My license had been suspended for excessive tickets, and they set the court date for a driving on suspended license charge five months out on June 10, 2014, to be listed on Judge McFarlin’s docket.

A driving on suspended license charge is a Class B misdemeanor, according to T.C.A 55-50-504, which carries a penalty of “not greater than six (6) months [imprisonment] or a fine not to exceed five hundred dollars (500), or both,” according to T.C.A. 40-35-111, which specifies misdemeanor penalties.

Assistant D.A. Sheila Freeze wrote the deal to send back to Judge McFarlin to have me state I understand what it meant and that I pleaded guilty. Under this charge, the plea deal agreed upon was six months at 940 suspended and substituted with a six-month probationary period at PCC, to pay a $50 fine, lose my license for six months, “as Dept. of Safety will allow,” according to the judgment form for this case, stay away from illegal drug activity or associate with anyone using illegal drugs, and have good and lawful conduct throughout and comply with all conditions of a six-month probationary period under the supervision and management of PCC. In this case, I unknowingly represented myself, “Pro Se.” When signing up for PCC, defendants are asked if they are currently on PCC, to which I replied “yes.”

The Bill of Cost receipt from the general sessions court clerk’s office states I paid $4 judicial commission, $70 clerk’s fee, $25 county officers fee, $10 county fine, $50 fine stated on the judgment form, $29.50 state tax, $15 penalty tax for not paying it the day of court, $1 CLRF, $65.85 county litigation, $12.50 to the public defender fund, $15 office fee, and $47 other—totaling $344.85. No PCC supervision fees or monetary costs accumulated on this case because I went into the abyss before that could happen.

I had at that point officially experienced all three classes of misdemeanors, (A, B and C) under Tennessee state law through the Rutherford County criminal court system.

According to the dockets, within a couple of months of my driving on suspended license case in court on June 10 2014, DUI days began to wane and evolved into DUI/suspended and revoked license days on Fridays until September. Judge Barry Tidwell replaced Judge David Loughry for one day on Oct. 6, 2014. Then there are no dockets for general sessions court until Jan. 12, 2015, when Judges Tidwell and McFarlin began a slow start into the year, eventually getting back into daily appearances by the end of April. By the end of May, Judge Tidwell was hosting sporadic DUI/suspended and revoked license day on Fridays, which, if not that combination of charges on that day, were mostly just DUI Fridays he inherited from Judge Loughry that averaged around a page of DUI charges throughout Judge Tidwell’s first year. Total daily caseloads of all charges, not just specific charges with their own days, increased the dockets all in all by a half page to a page from the previous year’s average. Driving on suspended and revoked license charges became such a trend reaching an average of a page of charges in total daily caseloads that Judge Tidwell turned Wednesdays into driving on suspended/revoked (Susp./Rev.) license day by December of 2015 and on through February of 2016 until he sourced Susp./Rev. license charges to Judge Toby Gilley from general session civil, who stepped in on March 3, 2016, to host susp./rev. license day on Thursdays, on top of Judge Tidwell’s susp./rev. license Wednesday, so Judge Tidwell could mind the regular, all-charges-encompassed docket on Thursdays and Judge McFarlin could get back to his weekly domestic assault day docket on Thursdays.

Judge Tidwell’s susp./rev. license docket on Wednesdays averaged around a page in 2016 while Judge Gilley’s docket on Thursdays averaged one-and-a-third pages of susp./rev. license charges throughout 2016. Currently both of their susp./rev. license days have increasing averages. Susp./rev. license dockets are usually a single charge per one individual defendant, so when there is a two-page susp./rev. license docket taken over by its own judge, that’s around 100 extra people in the judicial building on top of the other two judges’ dockets, averaging 200–250 cases total throughout 2016 and upwards of a daily caseload average of 275 through 2017 so far.

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