A judge has turned down a request to dismiss 12 felony charges against Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson, and Watson's defense attorney said he could go to trial in January.
Watson faces charges of having or using forged vehicle titles related to cars he bought in Florida and sold in Bradley County in 2016. 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.
In a hearing last week Watson's attorney, James F. Logan Jr., asked Special Judge Don Ash to dismiss the charges. He said the state law under which the sheriff was charged, T.C.A. 55-5-116(3), is unconstitutionally vague or fails to include a required element of the crime.
The statute's first two paragraphs say it's a crime to possess or use, with fraudulent intent, a certificate of title or registration issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles or a county clerk that has been forged.
The third paragraph says only that no one may "hold or use the document or plate, knowing the document or plate to have been altered, forged or falsified."
Watson already had sold five cars and couldn't legally sell more without a dealer's license. He held a salesman's license through Best Buy Auto and Leasing, and prosecutors say he added the dealership's name to his signature on six titles.
In his motion, Logan argued that there's no definition in that paragraph of "the document," and no requirement of fraudulent intent. He said there's no evidence Watson defrauded anyone — he said each buyer received clear title to the cars they bought.
Judge Ash, of Murfreesboro, rejected those arguments. Ash was named after the local judges recused themselves from handling the case against the county sheriff. Steve Crump, the 10th Judicial District attorney general, also recused himself, and the prosecution is being handled by 4th District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn's office.
In a ruling filed Thursday, Ash wrote that "the document" is clearly defined in the first two paragraphs. And he said the third paragraph as clearly makes it a crime knowingly to use a forged or altered title.
"The Court must presume, had the legislature intended to impose a fraudulent intent mens rea (the intention or knowledge of wrongdoing) into subsection three, it would have done so," Ash wrote.
And besides, Ash added in a footnote, "the terms 'forge' and 'falsify' presume fraudulent intent."
The judge also rejected Logan's argument that the paragraph was unconstitutionally vague. He said laws must be written clearly enough that ordinary people can understand what will get them in trouble and provide guidelines to law enforcement, but they don't have to "meet the unattainable standard of 'absolute perfection.'"
Ash said the language referring to "the document" was "unambiguous" and "clearly defined so as to pass constitutional muster."
He did grant another motion by Logan to limit planned testimony by Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent Barry Carrier in the case.
Carrier was assigned in 2016 to investigate allegations against Watson including financial wrongdoing and using his authority to help get a woman with whom he had a personal relationship out of jail, among other things. He is scheduled to be a witness at the trial.
Logan filed a motion to stop Carrier from testifying to other allegations of misconduct from that investigation, and Ash granted it.
Carrier left the TBI in May and another agent took over the ongoing investigation, which has to date produced no results. Some witnesses inside the Bradley County Sheriff's Office told the Times Free Press they were interviewed by Carrier early on, but he did not record them or take sworn statements, and the new agent, Dan Friel, has not contacted them in the months since Carrier left.
The state comptroller's office also investigated the sheriff's office finances at the request of Bradley County commissioners concerned about spending and credit card use in the department. Just this week, the comptroller's office released the county's annual audit and said it had found no problems with the sheriff's budget.
On Thursday, Logan told the Times Free Press he has the option of requesting an interlocutory appeal — asking the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals to consider Ash's ruling before Watson's trial. Such appeals may take place when a question of law is in doubt that will affect the final result of the case.
Logan said he has 10 days to file a request for an appeal, but he's not sure whether it's needed.
"We may reconsider the appeal and proceed to trial, if the state elects to go to trial, because we do not believe there was any evidence of fraud," Logan said.
"Every action was open, conspicuous, not hidden, and there was no evidence of any fraudulent activity against anyone and no allegation of the same. Every purchaser received good titles to their vehicles."
He said the trial date now is set for Jan. 22.
Dunn's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.
This story was updated Dec. 21, 2017, at 11 p.m. with more information and to substitute the word unconstitutional with constitutional in this sentence: Ash said the language referring to "the document" was "unambiguous" and "clearly defined so as to pass constitutional muster." thanks!