Cook: Three feet of justice?

Cook: Three feet of justice?

February 6th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

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.