CHATTANOOGA, Tenn., May 22, 2020 — A truck driver traveling the city’s streets in a private car says he didn’t hesitate to call 911, though he is black, because “I never had no problems with the Chattanooga police before.”
Michael James says out of a sense of personal responsibility and civic virtue he called police when he witnessed acts of reckless driving and a car crash in the early morning hours of May 6.
But rather than being thanked as a Good Samaritan, a city police officer turned the investigation of the car crash into an investigation into Mr. James, and arrested and criminally charged him. As his rough treatment by police attests, confidence in local police is potentially dangerous to members of the public.
Mr. James was alarmed as he traveled a part of Chattanooga and encountered a wildly traveling car that he saw at a stop light. Two girls were inside.
According to Mr. James, the girls spun away from the light and traveled rapidly and carelessly. Their actions set off his inner alarm. Mr. James makes his living as a professional driver, and has no criminal record. He is not working as we waits treatment for a work injury to an ankle.
After an exchange of obscene finger gestures at a stoplight, the girls crashed the car into property of Barn Nursery, and fled, running to the font door of a nearby house occupied by an elderly lady, who gave them entry. When police arrived, the girls made allegations about Mr. James, parked nearby with his flasher lights blinking, waiting to give report of what happened.
Mr. James is in sessions court this morning on two aggravated assault charges. The legal instrument that brings him here is a typed “uniform arrest report – affidavit of complaint,” the narrative of which suggests a mix of feckless police work and an abusive prosecution proceeding despite missing essential elements that might otherwise invalidate the case.
The Hamilton County court system is improperly closed, in violation of the constitution mandate they be “open.” Courts are functioning without public witness, and I had to face hassles to get a place in a court gallery kept empty of members of the public Friday.
Allegations ‘don’t add up’
Judge Webb passes the case until July 31, giving Mr. James’ attorney, Bill Speek, time to get from police evidence, including city and possibly private video. Neither judge or attorney bring Mr. James into the courtroom, as he is one floor below in the CV-19 “socially distanced” throng. In haste, Mr. Speek and assistant DA Larry Ables, in Saturday-type untucked casual wear, discuss the case without reference to its particulars or seeming folly.
“The allegations don’t add up,” Mr. James declares. “Sounds like false allegations to get out of what the person that was driving illegally that crashed into that building, sounded like they were just trying to get out of the situation. Those are false statements. There is no reason for me to do that to two young girls. What I observed and witnessed them — driving recklessly — and noticed that the two individuals in the car, they were awfully young, so I thought the car was stolen, but also thought they were falsely intoxicated — I seen ’em driving recklessly.
“So my call to 911 was a good deed on my part, especially when they crashed into the building, to make sure they were OK, and the people inside of the building that could’ve been injured, I was offering assistance and rendering aid, but also to make sure who was driving was held accountable for it, because they took off running.”
Whence essential elements?
The flaws in State of Tennessee v. Michael James are several.
➤ Lack of intent or mens rea. Tennessee law requires every criminal matter that guilty mind or guilty intent be alleged, argued and proven. The biggest hole in this case is mens rea. Why would a man who calls 911 threaten other people with a gun before officers arrive? The officer’s narrative — styled helpfully IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS THAT INCREASES ITS FOG FACTOR — cannot keep away the impression in reading his charging instrument that the girls’ charges are bogus. An underage girl at the wheel, in a car not theirs, speeding about and crashing the car make statements to the officers that he had a gun in his hand and that they felt threatened. The details, if there are any, don’t hide the fact he wouldn’t have had a motive to threaten them.
In Tennessee, making false statements to an officer is a crime at Title 39, and these females have every motive, it would appear, to have made at least one.
➤ The lack of sworn criminal complaint by the girls. Chattanooga police officer Lance Hughes did not take the girls before a magistrate at the jail to get them to swear out a statement under oath that Mr. James threatened them. Instead, his affidavit of complaint is him swearing out the complaint of the alleged threat, because he believes the girls’ unsworn statements.
Attorney Speek says Officer Hughes did nothing out of the ordinary in such “routine cases” and need not have taken them to the magistrate. However, for his regard for the rights of others, and to avoid injury, that’s what a reasonable person would have done, whatever is routine among cops.
The case is fraught with ill on the girls’ side and virtue on Mr. James’. Were the girls “licensed to drive” as “required?” Did they show Officer Hughes proof insurance? Did they flee the scene of the accident? Did they damage a car owned by another? Did they damage property of Barn Nursery? Their story is that Mr. James threatened them and chased them, according to cop Hughes’ narrative as sworn (according to a signature) before a court clerk. Officer Hughes’ report says “she stated [there was] a black or gray gun that could be held in one hand and had a long piece on it,” a seeming bit of flumdiddlery. With these claims, the state’s eye of accusation pivots away from the teens to the soft-spoken 911 caller.
➤ Illegal search of car, seizure of pistol. Mr. James avers he did nothing by way of threat to the girls, identified in the report as Ella Peters, 14, a caucasian, and Kyalia Anderson, 16, who is African-American. Not finding a gun on his person or in the cabin of the car, police searched Mr. James’ trunk. They had no warrant for the search, and he gave no consent for it. Officers confiscated a Beretta .40-caliber automatic under a lock in a hard plastic gun case tucked in a backpack. At no time did he have the weapon in hand, Mr. James says.
“He’s charged with two counts of aggravated assault,” Mr. Speek says after the hearing. “I think the state’s allegation is that the girls were being chased, they wrecked their car, and they were claiming that he had chased them. I think that when the evidence comes out that you will find *** that they were driving erratically in traffic. My client called 911 and reported this erratic driving, not knowing whether they were drunk, but certainly could attest that they were a threat to other motorists on the road.” Mr. Speek says Mr. James “cooperated fully” with police after awaiting their arrival at the crash scene.
“Ironically, he is the one who was arrested in this case,” Mr. Speek says. “He was being a responsible citizen, and he was following at a reasonable distance and was more worried for other motorists on the road.”
➤ Belligerent treatment by officer. As Mr. James tells of his arrest, Officer Hughes arrived on the scene about 15 minutes after other cops. Officers met the girls at the house to which the girls hustled near the crash scene. As police “continued their investigation into the car crash,” the police report says, the girls turned the story against Mr. James. Cops came up to him as he sat in his car, guns ready, ordered him out, ordered his hands in the air and did a Terry patdown. They questioned him aggressively, Mr. James says. “He became defensive and continually repeated the same story,” the Hughes affidavit says. Officer Hughes stood inches from Mr. James’ face and bellowed at him in violation of the day’s distancing protocol, Mr. James says.
For the next two months the cloud of the criminal case will hang over Mr. James as he tries to get treatment for his injury and get back to work. A hearing is July 31, by which time Mr. Speek hopes to get evidence to get the charges dismissed.