published Thursday, February 6th, 2014

Cook: Three feet of justice?

It took 24 days to get to this point. We could have biked from here to the Grand Canyon.

Finally, Marion County, Tenn., officials decided to charge two local teenagers with acts of delinquency.

On Jan. 11, Anders Swanson was training on the Raccoon Mountain reservoir when teenagers buzzed, airhorned and pepper-sprayed him. The assault was not only a specific act of aggression here, in this growing outdoor city, but a lightning rod of outrage for cyclists across America who have experienced similar car-to-bike violence.

That's why the charges matter so much.

The 14-year-old was charged with possession of an unreasonably loud horn. The 16-year-old was charged with misdemeanor assault -- he, with the pepper-spray -- and, perhaps more notably, violating the 3-foot law.

State law requires all cars give at least 3 feet of clearance when passing a cyclist. Marion County's decision to charge the teen with violating this law is groundbreaking, as it sends a message to all drivers that law enforcement can and will take the 3-foot violation seriously.

Many people were doubting any real justice would come from this; they saw law enforcement slow-walking the case, perhaps with a wink and nod to some well-connected noncyclists, blind to the real seriousness of what happened.

By charging the teen (not only with the obvious assault charge) with the 3-foot violation, Marion County sent a loud message that could ripple across America, setting perhaps not a legal precedent, but an indirect one: If you violate the 3-foot law, we will take it seriously.

That is precisely what cyclists are asking for.

Of course, police aren't able to shadow every cyclist during every encounter with every flagrant car or truck, but if cyclists capture -- as Swanson did -- the moment on cellphones or GoPros, it can and will be used for prosecution.

Rather grandly, Marion County authorities prove this.

But things aren't settled just yet.

Why weren't the teens charged with lying to police? If they told Chattanooga officers one thing -- admitting to airhorns and pepper-spray, never mentioning that Swanson had attacked them -- and then told Marion County authorities another -- Swanson charged, they pepper-sprayed in self-defense -- then why aren't they being charged with making false claims?

"If it's found in juvenile court that they made a false statement, that could be an additional charge later," Marion County Sheriff Ronnie "Bo" Burnett said.

One of Burnett's detectives defended his work and the time it took.

"During this 18 days of investigation, I have had two child rape allegations, one child abuse allegation, 13 felony thefts, a body that was taken out of the Sequatchie River," Gene Hargis said. "That's in addition to the 200 open cases I have."

Understood, detective.

But in the first days after the assault, Swanson got a call from Marion County Sgt. Tim Prince. According to Swanson, Prince did not immediately begin discussing the assault, but rather the Facebook photos Swanson had posted online of the teens' truck.

"We've got a big problem," Swanson recalls the officer saying. "If you move forward with this, these parents are bringing charges against you."

Why would Prince begin here, by saying this? Why did Prince suddenly introduce doubt into Swanson's mind, that he was to blame? Swanson said the tone of their conversation was so persuasive he began wondering if he should drop the whole thing.

Swanson remembers the officer saying something like: Let's just shake hands and live and let be.

And when he heard that?

"It was more upsetting than getting pepper-sprayed," Swanson said.

With professional and refreshing honesty, Burnett admitted his officer had made a mistake.

"He was wrong," Burnett said. "I had a talk with him. He shouldn't have said that ... He's a good officer. A good guy. He was just trying to keep the peace."

With that phrase -- keep the peace -- Burnett reminds us what this is all about. Keeping the peace -- between cyclists and drivers. Restoring it -- for victims. And creating it -- for anyone who chooses to cycle and ride through Marion County.

"I think we've been kind of labeled as a redneck county. It's not true," Burnett said. "I don't want people to think we were trying to sweep something under the rug."

Funny, because that's similar to what Swanson said.

"I don't want there to be any ill will or frustration directed at anybody who lives in Marion County," Swanson said. "It would really bother me deeply if that was some lingering byproduct of this whole incident."

This whole incident is over when incidents like this never happen again. The investigation and charges filed in Marion County may help us get closer to that day.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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tderng said...

These thugs will probably use the "affluenza" defense. Sounds like the Marion County Sheriff's office didn't want to prosecute until they were forced to.

February 6, 2014 at 9:34 a.m.
potcat said...

Finally, maybe you will let it end. Cyclist have took over the roads in Marion Co.,and are not too polite in doing so. They ride on old roads that are hilly,curvy,narrow and dangerous for two vihicles to meet, much less a bycycle. We have logging, dump, eighteen wheelers that use every one of these roads. Even our county maintaince trucks and electrical power trucks are on these roads all the time,and are huge. We also have varying speed limits that bycycles can't keep up with.

Yeah, some dumbass passed a law allowing "BYCYCLE'S" the same rights as all types of motor vehicles. They should have to be registered, tagged and buy insurance. Why aren't they allowed on the interstate? It would actually be safer for them and vehicles.

So you finally got the bad guys,LOL. Sometimes it seems you can weigh issues fairly, this one not so much. The bycycle extremist have you, or are you one of them?

They were not liked before this, and if i were you, i would be out asking the citizens of Marion Co. why? There's got to be a reason why they are so disliked, make that your mission next time, before writting 6? articles on this, all so pressing issue.

At the stop sign, i never read in your expose, what were the words Anders exchanged with the young men?? What did Anders say to the young men? I really want to know. We know the arrogance all to well here, you never mentioned what words were exchanged, Why?

February 6, 2014 at 2:18 p.m.
jackiemayak said...

Prince should be investigated and reprimanded. How comforting it is to know Marion County Sheriff's Deptartment's officers bully victims into not pressing charges and giving them false information.... Falsifying info???? Only in Marion County! BUT ... He's a good 'ole boy!

February 6, 2014 at 11:20 p.m.
propagandhi41 said...

Potcat,

I think this is David Cook's sign off on this issue, but it seems to me Marion County was the culprit in dragging this issue out, no? I believe the press and the community have total freedom to discuss and hash out an issue while charges are being finalized, albeit at a slow pace.

I understand your concerns of the dangers of cyclists on the road. But just to clarify, the "dumbass" who made it law for cyclists to be considered vehicles on the road..there happen to be many "dumbasses" as this is consistent legislation throughout the United States. There is always the option of moving to a place where people don't exist, so you will not have to worry about cyclists in your community.

Somewhere out there, cyclists' safety on the road is (was?) an issue, not just for the spandex clad recreational cyclist, but to the cyclist who uses roads to get to work, to get to the grocery store and to live their life. It's hard to imagine in Marion County, where the car is ubiquitous, but there are places in Tennessee where one can get along without a car. There are other types of roads besides the "hilly,curvy,narrow and dangerous for two vihicles to meet" road where there is plenty of room for both bicycles and motor vehicles to coexist, but motor vehicle aggression is still present (and cyclist ignorance). So I urge to consider other people and places in this issue, and not just the bubble of Marion County.

Personally, I have no sympathy for both the Chattanooga cyclist community and the Marion County residents for their behavior in this issue. Both have shown immaturity through name calling, stereotyping, and have exhibited narrow vision that only perpetuates the divide that is in existence here. This cycling issue is not about recreational cyclists nor about rural counties like Marion, that is selfish for all of you to think that. Recreational cyclists call for equal rights to the road but judge Marion County residents where they ride. Shame on you. Marion County residents call for complete removal of cyclists from the road but don't understand the broader issue of an alternate transportation method for people to live their lives.

The bad guys here are people like you Potcat and the cyclists in Chattanooga and abroad that think only about themselves.

However, I think there is hope to move forward in the issue of cyclists on the road.

February 7, 2014 at 8:14 a.m.
potcat said...

Marion County residents hasn't called for any removal of cyclist. Its a law, we will abide.

Bad guys...... i don't believe there were any bad guys involved in this, not even the kids. Bad guys, No.

There are plenty of bad guys, but this is just not the case in this issue.

February 7, 2014 at 8:28 a.m.
GaussianInteger said...

Let me spray you in the face with mace potcat and let's see you say the culprit(s) are not "bad guys". You'd just let bygones be bygones, right? You'd just write it off as a misunderstanding? And the only reason it was this big an issue was because of Marion County's handling of the case. The evidence in the case was posted on Anders' Facebook page via a video of the incident. It was damning enough to warrant a phone call from a MC officer threatening charges against Anders if he did not remove the video. So potcat, if Anders was to blame or had something to hide, why would he post that video? It's something that neither you or MC backers of these punks are willing to recognize. It's Common Sense 101.

P.S. It wasn't just Cook covering this; it has been taken to a national level.

February 7, 2014 at 1:47 p.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

I'm glad the little punks will get some punishment, using pepper spray isn't kids being kids. Sorry Polecat. And Polecat, I agree with you cycling on certain roads is as dumb as skydiving without a parachute. There are many roads I wouldn't walk on because traffic is too dangerous, no shoulder and no where to go if someone has to swerve onto the edge of the road. The punks should be made to run the stadium steps until they puke and then to clean public toilets for the month of August when the smell is strong. Folks have to share the road and treat others as they would want to be treated.

February 9, 2014 at 10:25 p.m.
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