CLEVELAND, Tenn. — A judge said Wednesday he will decide within a few days whether Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson walks free or goes to trial on a dozen felony charges relating to forged automobile titles.
In a short hearing, Special Judge Don Ash, of Murfreesboro, heard a motion to dismiss by Watson attorney James F. Logan Jr.
The charges accuse Watson of having or using vehicle titles that had been forged or altered in relation to his side business selling used cars. The Tennessee Department of Revenue took the case to the Bradley County grand jury after a December 2015 investigation by the Times Free Press into Watson's side business as a used car dealer.
Each charge is a Class E felony punishable by one to six years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000 upon conviction.
However, Logan contends the state law under which Watson is charged, T.C.A. 55-5-116(3), is unconstitutionally vague or fails to include a required element of the crime.
The statute says it's a crime to possess or use a title issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles or a county clerk that has been forged with fraudulent intent. Logan contends the state hasn't offered any evidence the sheriff violated Tennessee law — the forged titles in this case were issued by Florida — or intended to defraud anyone.
Watson had bought 11 vehicles out of state and sold five, which is all he could sell on his own without a dealer's license.
Prosecutors say he altered the titles on the six others by writing in the name of the auto dealer he worked for, Best Buy Auto and Leasing, after his own name.
The first paragraph of the T.C.A. 55-5-116 says it's a crime to "alter with fraudulent intent" a title or registration document issued by the state motor vehicle department or a county clerk. The second paragraph says it's a crime to "alter or falsify with fraudulent intent any assignment upon a certificate of title."
But Logan told Ash the third paragraph says no one may "hold or use the document or plate, knowing the document or plate to have been altered, forged or falsified."
That section doesn't specify what "the document" is, and it doesn't include a requirement for fraudulent intent. Without any definition of "document," a person could not know he or she was committing a crime, Logan said.
The statute has been on the books for 70 years and this is the first time anyone's been charged under Section 3, he added.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Harrell conceded the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting Watson, hasn't found anyone ever charged under Section 3 either. But he said the General Assembly has never felt the need to change it, so it must be sufficient.
Ash said he would rule within two or three days. He also talked with the attorneys about trial procedures, such as jury selection, if he declines to grant Logan's motion.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.
This story was updated Dec. 13, 2017, at 11:40 p.m. with more information.