Tennessee is an “after-crash” insurance state, but cops, deputies and troopers statewide prosecute “no insurance” as a crime bringing travelers and drivers into city and sessions courts, and sometimes under indictment. Existing practice allows them to criminally charge “no insurance” if the arrest is premised on some other charge
By David Tulis / NoogaRadio Network
Tennessee’s law is for financial responsibility, not for “proof of insurance.” Cops ask for “proof of insurance” roadside as a matter of routine, and criminally charge the traveler if he fails to produce an insurance card.
Two cases explain what being an “after-crash”state means. It means motorist subject to the state law must show proof of financial responsibility to the commissioner of safety after a crash. The cases are Burress v. Sanders, 31 S.W.3d 259 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2000) and Erwin v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 232 F. Supp. 530 (E.D. Tenn. 1964).
Judging by police practice in cities and counties in Tennessee, the people are being defrauded by three commissioners and local authorities in their rights to use their cars and drive/operate their motor vehicles outside the scope of this law as they have not been in an accident. A driver or operator comes under the purview of T.C.A. §55-12-101 et seq after a crash.
Tennessee law enforcement has been told by the attorneys general’s office that “driving without insurance” is not a crime, but it can be added on as a civil offense in a criminal traffic stop with a criminal pretense. “Tennessee law does not currently make driving without insurance a standalone crime.”
The James Lee Atwood Jr. Law creates only civil penalties—as $25 fee, a $100 fee, and revocation of the vehicle owner’s registration—for the failure to insure a motor vehicle. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-12-210(a)-(c). It does not criminalize the failure to insure a motor vehicle. And other statutory provisions governing vehicle insurance coverage criminalize only the act of failing to provide evidence of insurance to a law enforcement officer when the officer requests it after the driver has been charged with a traffic violation or has been in an accident. Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-12-139(b)(1)(A), (c)(1).April 27, 2020 Opinion No. 20-08 Reasonable Suspicion for Traffic Stops to Check Insurance Coverage
In sum, driving an uninsured vehicle is not a stand-alone crime in Tennessee, and, therefore, under current Sixth Circuit precedent, reasonable suspicion that a moving vehicle is uninsured is not legally sufficient justification to stop the vehicle. Because the failure to insure the vehicle is only a civil violation punishable by a civil fee, the law enforcement officer would need to have probable cause—not just reasonable suspicion — that the vehicle was uninsured in order lawfully to stop the vehicle.
Thin rationale for criminal charge
Police use T.C.A. § 55-12-139 as the basis for their criminal charges upon members of the traveling public to be handled criminally in court.
The apparent bases are —
- Header of sections in older print copy of Tennessee code and current Lexis Nexis edition online. “55-12-139. Compliance with financial responsibility law required — Evidence of compliance — Issuance of citations by police service technicians.” Headers have no legal force. But judges use the statement to enforce ostensibly “mandatory insurance” on defendants in city, sessions and criminal courts, defendant Ed Soloe of Alcoa says.
- The phrase “as required in this section” is used to imply that all travelers, drivers and operators must “show proof of insurance,” as the demand is put into vernacular. For context:
(A) At the time a driver of a motor vehicle is charged with any violation under chapters 8 and 10, parts 1-5, and chapter 50 of this title; chapter 9 of this title; any other local ordinance regulating traffic; or at the time of an accident for which notice is required under § 55-10-106, an officer shall request evidence of financial responsibility as required by this section.
(B) In case of an accident for which notice is required under § 55-10-106, the officer shall request evidence of financial responsibility from all drivers involved in the accident without regard to apparent or actual fault. [emphasis added]
What cities and counties do is take phrases such as “as required by this section” and “is required” to recast and alter the law.
This practice breaches the rules of statutory construction. In brief, these rules require that no part of a law may be interpreted to nullify another part, that no interpretation of a provision cancels, dwarfs or magnifies duties in some other. State law, like the Bible, interprets itself. The body of law forms a systematic whole. A judge confronted with a seeming contradiction is under duty to find the law constitutional by making all its parts cohere. The premise is that the general assembly knew what it was doing when it drafted the law, and the court must make it work.
Hence, the rules of statutory construction disallow for interpretation that creates a “mandatory insurance” demand imposed by cops when the law itself is premised on duties that arise upon the motorist — whether he be traveler, driver or operator — after an accident.
The “after an accident” trigger is vital. Those provisions are found at T.C.A. § 55-12-104 and 105.
AGs accept fraudulent premise
The attorney general maintains what appears to be a fraud against the public. One is July 28, 2009 Opinion No. 09-135 “Scanning Motor Vehicle License Plates to Determine Financial Responsibility Compliance” and the second is April 27, 2020 Opinion No. 20-08 “Reasonable Suspicion for Traffic Stops to Check Insurance Coverage.”
Herbert Slatery III, author of the later, and Robert F. Cooper Jr, drafter of the earlier, uphold the pretense that Tennessee requires proof of financial responsibility prior to accident. “Law enforcement agencies have the authority to demand proof of compliance with the financial responsibility law at the time of moving violations and accidents only,” Mr. Cooper says. Sounds good, that LPRs cannot snarf up defendants by operating their AI eyeballs upon passing vehicle tags. He is highlighting a limit in an operation of police, as awhole, goes way overboard in allowing police powers to operate upon members of the public.
Fog of bad writing
Says Christopher Sapp, midstate bureau chief for NoogaRadio Network and 96.9 FM in Chattanooga on whether the 2015 Lee Atwood amendment to the 1977 financial responsibility act creates new powers: “But everyone has been led to believe that it does, and you practically have to be an attorney to see that it does not. Since the statute is so intentionally and ambiguously written and compartmentalized the way that it is, no wonder the average citizen cannot make heads or tales of it and is so easily mislead. It’s hard to see things clearly when it is shrouded by fog. Our job is to shed enough light on this subject that the fog is dissipated and the public can see the topic clearly.”