SODDY-DAISY, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2022 – One man owes F$3,000 to the state. A second man, F$12,000, the state offended that he dared use the public right of way without its approval.
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio
It is Tuesday night. Traffic court in Soddy-Daisy, a small incorporated town in North Hamilton County. There are no empty chairs tonight. Benches had been removed from the CV-19 state of disaster; a patchwork of 20 padded chairs are laid out to “space” the living, breathing defendants, or their safety. Eight people are muffled away behind chin diapers or head socks tonight.
Overseeing the traffic proceedings – a town favor-to-the-state enforcement of the state trucking law at Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55, Motor and Other Vehicles — is Rex V. Sparks, a genteel, dignified attorney subbing tonight for the Hon. Marty Lasley, the elected city court judge. Judge Sparks, in practice 37 years in Chattanooga with an office at 707 Georgia Ave., views the assignment not as one of stern rectitude or punishment, but of respectful and caring condescension to common people who’ve run afoul of a great and stern master in Nashville, the state and its unquestioned rule of the roads.
Of the cases I hear about tonight, not one is a declaration of guilt with its fine and court costs, a credit to Judge Sparks.
Judge Sparks serves his assignment as an inquisitive social worker, church deacon, avuncular personal adviser and, finally, as administrator of a complex and impenetrable system of law that, since the days of defendants Terry White’s or Corey Paris’ great gran’maw and great gran’paw, controls all use of the road as a state property.
Judge Sparks puts the human face on a system of commercial government. It is fixed, sure and harsh. He wants all seeming evils in that system to be overcome for the folk in the room. Using judicial discretion, he gives way once and again. He shows lenity. He mitigates. He grants grace in extending the next visit to the court to 60 days out, maybe 90. The judge’s report is congratulatory to the offender who shows up with proof of insurance. His advice to another is to persist in getting that job, to pay the fine, to get the driver license restored.
Unfree people under bond
Tonight there’s no reference to any law. No one has an attorney, even though Judge Sparks lauds a man who says he intends to obtain one as the best thing that man has said tonight.
Title 55’s being discussed is not just remote, but impossible. Lawyers don’t know much about that dull book that imposes on commercial users the treble claims of commercial government – driver license, proof of insurance, and (on many nights in Soddy-Daisy city court), vehicle registration.
Judge Sparks and Judge Lasley are better men than the job in city court envisions. If they acted as far as the law they enforce would appear to allow, there would be a revolution. As it is, the fines and costs generally are seen as manageable. Even the masked man in the wheelchair who owes a F$618 reinstatement fee and had to pay F$25 or a duplicate certificate of completion from a “driving school” is seen as facing doable and reasonable expenses — all part of living as an America in a free country.
Operating presumption of commerce
Robert Mangum was seized by Soddy-Daisy police enroute to a long-held Hixson golf course employment where he keeps the grounds. Does he have a job? “Sure don’t” he says, emphatically — but he vaguely indicates he has prospects, a something ahead.
Has Mr. Mangum made headway on a revoked license? No. He got a ticket Oct. 12, 2021, and lost his job Nov. 19. “My employer knew my situation,” Mr. Mangum says. His boss had been picking him up mornings, “but he can’t do it everyday.”
“It’s tough when you got no license and your tags are out,” he explains, charged with “driving on revoked” and failure to show proof of insurance. His mom, who lives half a mile away, is in bad health, and not always free to “transport” him to the greens. The judge asks about children. None. No wife. He probes into family matters, asking about a sister; is there a sibling rivalry that might make her indisposed to help in time of trouble?
Judge Sparks’ conversations are routinely about job, dependents, means of travel, fines and ability to pay. Mr. Mangum, in a visit to the county clerk’s office, converted his car into a motor vehicle so Mr. Mangum could use the car as a private or common carrier for hire in commerce under state privilege. He had entered relationship with the state also as regards his driver license.
In the neon-lit courtroom with no microphones in use tonight, all would agree: Mr. Mangum cannot legally travel on the public right of way on account of him not meeting terms of the “driving privilege.” He is denied by the operating presumption of the court the right to use the road for any purpose, even that common law right to pursue a harmless and innocent occupation.
Before Judge Sparks are working-class people on the edge of desperation, many with lives kaleidoscoped with disaster and the continual pinching of subsistency. The role of mothers is important in Judge Sparks’ court. Men in their 40s and 50s have mothers — here, Judge Sparks gently inquires — who help out when grown men in Tennessee are under travel bans.
People banned from using the roads and freeways freely ask mothers, if not sickly or at their own jobs, for rides to a construction site or roofing job.
Judge Sparks’ customers are people with gnawing gaps in their resumes and stories, who oft have repeated offenses such as “failure to appear,” making them subject to a capias arrest (bench warrant).
City court enforces state administrative law
Soddy-Daisy’s corporate charter makes city court the judicial branch of a three-tiered government operation. It is charged with enforcing ordinances and disputes under ordinance. It enforces slivers of Tennessee law by having adopted provisions of Title 55 for use upon commercial drivers and operators in the city limit.
The city goes farther. Apart from law, it makes itself an arm of the state, without reimbursement or statutory charge, in administering all of the state commercial code upon private users – that is, everyone in the court tonight.
It does not adjudicate law, it administers cases under administrative privilege statute.
As I explain to Trevor Grizzle, 18, who owes $3,000 to the state, Soddy-Daisy “enforces a foot-wide law as if it were a yard wide.”
Trevor Grizzle is under a charge of “driving on revoked” after a department of safety notice went to an old address.
We stand outside the door of the court after he leaves the podium to depart. He pulls out his papers, which slurp onto a wooden bench there in the hallway.
I gesticulate with my hands to explain to him his situation. The foot-wide part is the law’s actual focus on shipping, on buses, flat-bed haulers, dump truck operators, cabs, logging trucks and rigs hauling TV sets from an Arkansas warehouse to a local Wal-Mart.
Now, I spread my hands a yard apart. The other two feet left over in the enforcement gap contain people “like you and like me, private people using the road privately, not for hire, not for profit, the road not our place of business. Do you use the road to exercise your rights, to do private business, for private pleasure, to handle your private necessities?
Mr. Grizzle nods, and awaits clarification.
“Well, you and everybody in that room are being conned, we’re being shafted and abused by the presumption that somehow we’re all required to submit ourselves to get a privilege, a license, to use the road. But we have a right to use the road by right, as the roads belong to the people with the state merely caretaker, protector and steward.”
I shut up, and wish him well. It’s a word for Mr. Grizzle to chew on.
Traffic operations of corporate government — apart from law, in derogation if not abrogation of constitutional rights — is such an unquestioned custom and usage that no judge, lawyer, officer, no Mr. Grizzle has thought to challenge such proceedings.
Mr. Grizzle looks at me with wide eyes, as if dealing with an oracle speaking a foreign tongue.
I have indirectly challenged such proceedings in my Tennessee Transportation Administrative Notice project, launched Feb. 28, 2018, in Chattanooga city council, with no effect anywhere in Hamilton County.
‘Use the phone’
➤ The man before the bar is 22 years old, charged with reckless driving.
The judge wants to get to the moral and spiritual wrong that, legally, is an essential element in reckless driving. It’s a wrong “because it dangerous,” the judge chides. “Not just you. But passengers. But dangerous to everyone else out there, on the highways and byways.” Judge Sparks asks about speeding past 100 mph. “It’s not just dangerous for you. You could have a blowout, skid across the median and kill someone in the car opposite.”
The judge says he wouldn’t want to die at 22 years old. The defendant admits he has two “failures to appear.” No matter where incarcerated, in Silverdale or Rhea County jail, use the phone, the judge says: “You call dada, mama — ‘I won’t be able to go court – could you go for me?’ Or let the clerk know. Never fail to show up in court, Judge Sparks warns, in fatherly interest.
Judge Sparks points out that walking is a great thing a man can do.
Mr. Mangum says one job prospect is three miles distant, in the Dallas Bay area. But it’s “embarrassing” to walk. The judge says he understands, and doesn’t want Mr. Mangum’s spirits to flag.
“You gotta keep fighting. Things will be better. Just don’t give up,” citing the source for the comment as Winston Churchill. “He said it 4 times,” as those times were “pretty dark for the Brits in World War II.”
“Realistically, how much longer till you actually have a license?” the judge insists.
➤ Courtney Lee Moses has a revoked license charge and no proof of insurance. But Soddy-Daisy Sgt. Keith Loveless verifies her proof is on her phone, and Judge Sparks tells the clerk to mark the charge as dismissed.
Miss Moses had traveled six months on the road with a license revoked over a DUI in Sequatchie County.
➤ Gregory Stewart of Dayton is a father of two whom the judge says has “been through the wringer.” He got 30 days of addiction treatment.
“How do you feel about it, now that you’re clean and sober?” Mr. Stewart and the judge talk about his situation. He is going to AA-type meetings that take place not far from his domicile, “next to my mom’s where I stay.”
Says the judge: “Congratulations on doing the right thing, Mr. Stewart.” The judge orders Officer Loveless to copy the proof of insurance, to make sure it is in Mr. Stewart’s file.