The spicy tongued young woman who recorded her mother’s arrest under Tennessee’s commercial transportation law says cops are laying eight charges against Diana Watt.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
Mrs. Watt, seized Saturday on private gas station property off Wilcox Boulevard, is charged with assaulting an officer, retaliation against an official for a past action, resisting arrest, obstruction of legal process, disorderly conduct, financial responsibility law violation (no car insurance), expired commercial motor vehicle tag, unlawful removal of plate registration and refusal to sign city court citation.
Jalonda Oattes, 20, a business administration student at Miller-Motte Technical College, says the video of her mother’s arrest tells of the sorry state of relations between the police and working people, and she is indignant police serving mayor Andy Berke thrust the woman to the ground for not acting as promptly as ordered, with one officer counting as he night a recalcitrant 5-year-old who faces a spanking if she doesn’t get hopping.
The transportation stop pretext originates in Tenn. Code Ann. Title 55, “motor and other vehicles,” regarding the for-profit use of vehicles and freight motor vehicles (“upon, or by which any person or property is or maybe transported or dawn upon a highway,” TCA 55-1-103). Chattanooga police officers, who enforce that law even against people who are don’t carry goods or passengers, alleged initially that Mrs. Watt’s tag (proof of tax paid for a privilege) was expired and that she had a suspended license.
One pretext for the stop was an expired tag on the Watt car, meaning it wasn’t registered correctly as a motor vehicle in commerce (a point police will have to prove at trial). Another point of conflict during the noisy encounter was the claim that Mrs. Watt’s driver license was suspended. However, she was not charged with driving on suspended.
Under Tennessee Code Ann. Title 55, all operators and drivers of motor vehicles, since they are involved in the commercial use of the roads, must have a current driver license and do no misdeed that would prompt the state to suspend the privilege.
Ms. Oattes says the stack of charges is a punishment partly to account for the women’s complaints and public drama, but the interactions of the mother with police seem to fall short of at least three of the statutes invoked.
When Mrs. Watt was put in the back of a police cruiser, Ms. Oattes says, with its engine off, the older woman became overheated and struggled to breathe. One could hear her gasping, she says. Ms. Oattes “feared for her life,” and demanded medical attention. An officer lied by saying paramedic help was on its way — which it wasn’t, she says.
Ms. Oattes says the family had to pay about F$200 fee to a bondsman to fee Mrs. Watt.
Officers acting in personal capacity
City government received administrative notice in February about the limits on the scope of the transportation statue. But it is following state policy in its claims against Mrs. Watt, enforcing without caution the law against people who are not involved in transportation. Transportation is the commercial use of the road for profit and gain, the selling of the free market service of carrying goods or people for hire as a carrier. The state’s rules are strictly for commercial activity; the law recognizes that private users of the road exist, and are thus outside its scope. Private users such as Mrs. Watt use the road for their pleasure, private purposes, to fulfill personal necessities and for the exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed rights such as religion, voting or abortion. Title 55 and the controlling federal transportation law at U.S.C. 49 put forth — and limit — state authority upon the activity of transportation. Commercial use is subject to regulation in the public interest. City police, with state sanction, appear to violate federal law by enforcing commercial law upon private and personal use, according the restatement of law and court rulings in the notice.
Though officers are obeying city policy to launch their arrest under Title 55, they can be shown to have acted under personal capacity, since legally they are responsible for using violence, handcuffing, arrest and jailing only when warranted under the statute itself.
Ms. Oartes serves pet owners with an online business and hopes to graduate within two months with an associate degree in business administration.
“I’m not going to say I didn’t use profanity, because I did. They used profanity against me and my sisters as well. *** One of them almost busted out my car window. He told me to get the f*** off the property, and he didn’t give a f*** if he busted out the window of my car” while Mrs. Watt was being put into the police car. An officer was pounding on her window, she says. And she says she cried back: “You bust the window of my car, you are going to pay for it.”
“What they did was not OK. They need to lose their jobs. Why wasn’t a woman officer handling her? Why was it a man? *** Why were you using force anyway when she was proceeding to get out of the car?” Ms. Oattes asks. “She just wasn’t moving at his speed.*** I’m not settling for it. Something’s got to be done.”
“They have to understand” why she used bad language. “That is my mom. What happened to her caused those words to verbally come out of my mouth. Am I like that on a daily basis? No. I go to church on Sunday. I’m a Christian. So it caused me to even get out of character like that. ”
“I’m gonna stand up for my rights. And I’m damn sure gonna stand up for my momma.”
Charges against citizen — some iffy
Some charges against Mrs. Watt are sketchy.
➤ Mrs. Watt is alleged to have used force to resist and obstruct her arrest. She is charged with assaulting an officer and, separately, resisting arrest. Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-602. Resisting stop, frisk, halt, arrest or search — Prevention or obstruction of service of legal writ or process, cannot be invoked for someone attempting to thwart stop, frisk or arrest without the use of force. If one uses force, this law applies — but not without it. Officers are using this charge because they also accuse Mrs. Watt of assault.
➤ The retaliation statute applies only when an officials act in the past is used as basis of retaliation. Retaliation for past action, requires the action by the state actor be in the past.
The law says: “A person commits the offense of retaliation for past action who harms or threatens to harm a witness at an official proceeding, judge, district attorney general *** by any unlawful act in retaliation for anything the witness, judge, district attorney general, *** did in an official capacity as witness, judge, district attorney general, *** .” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-510. Ms. Oattes says Mrs. Watt has had no past dealings with cops, judges or other state actors.
➤ Disorderly conduct has five provisions, at least two of which are unconstitutionally vague. Some provisions are unenforceably vague, or highly exact. A person commits the offense who, with “intent to cause public annoyance or alarm,” engages in “fighting or in violent or threatening behavior,” or who, during a fire, hazard or other emergency, “Refuses to obey an official order to disperse.” These provisions are self-limiting and particular. The vague ones are that the accused “[c]reates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act that serves no legitimate purpose” or who “makes unreasonable noise” that “prevents others from carrying on lawful activities.” Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-17-305. Disorderly conduct. The vague law has not been properly challenged, and very little appellate level opinion exists on it because it is essentially a harassing charge traded out in plea bargaining.
Very few criminal charges go to trial, and so police departments across the state file charges carelessly, with abandon, because district attorneys don’t have to work to prove much before juries.
➤ Criminal intent law ignored. Also, it remains to be seen whether the officers, DA attorneys and judges will abide by the requirement that the state allege in every element of a charge the guilty mind, or mens rea, or guilty consience, of the accused. In other words, did Mrs. Watt, under each charge, INTEND to violate the statute and bring about the end that is prohibited or barred by the law.
But no one troubles with reform of the law because it is a throwaway charge that usually is plea bargained away in the horse trading by the DA;s office.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-510
39-16-510. Retaliation for past action.
(a) (1) A person commits the offense of retaliation for past action who harms or threatens to harm a witness at an official proceeding, judge, district attorney general, an assistant district attorney general, an employee of the district attorney general or a law enforcement officer, clerk, employee of the clerk, juror or former juror, or a family member of any such person, by any unlawful act in retaliation for anything the witness, judge, district attorney general, assistant district attorney general, employee of the district attorney general or a law enforcement officer, clerk, employee of the clerk, or juror did in an official capacity as witness, judge, district attorney general, assistant district attorney general, employee of the district attorney general or a law enforcement officer, clerk, employee of the clerk, or juror. The offense of retaliation for past action shall not apply to an employee of a clerk who harms or threatens to harm the clerk.
(2) For purposes of subdivision (a)(1), “family member” means the spouse, parent, grandparent, stepmother, stepfather, child, grandchild, brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, adopted children of the parent, or the spouse’s parents.
(b) A violation of this section is a Class E felony.
39-17-305. Disorderly conduct.
(a) A person commits an offense who, in a public place and with intent to cause public annoyance or alarm:
(1) Engages in fighting or in violent or threatening behavior;
(2) Refuses to obey an official order to disperse issued to maintain public safety in dangerous proximity to a fire, hazard or other emergency; or
(3) Creates a hazardous or physically offensive condition by any act that serves no legitimate purpose.
(b) A person also violates this section who makes unreasonable noise that prevents others from carrying on lawful activities.
(c) A violation of this section is a Class C misdemeanor.