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Sheriff Eric Watson

A hearing set for Monday in the criminal case against Bradley County (Tenn.) Sheriff Eric Watson has been pushed into December.

Watson is charged with 12 felony counts of possessing or using vehicle titles that had been forged or altered in relation to his side business as a used-car salesman.

His attorney, James F. Logan Jr., contends the state hasn't offered any evidence Watson violated Tennessee law and has challenged the constitutionality of the state law under which the sheriff is charged.

Watson's trial was to have begun Monday, but Special Judge Don Ash said earlier this month he needed time to consider the constitutionality question. A new trial date was to be set at a hearing Monday, but the Bradley County court clerk's office said that hearing was reset to Dec. 21.

Logan, who said from Watson's initial indictment in July that his client wants a speedy trial, said Friday he was told the reason for the latest delay was the state had not had time to prepare its response to his motions.

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"Very disappointed of course," Logan said in a text message, adding he hopes the hearing can be held sooner.

The charges grew out of a Times Free Press investigation in December 2016 that showed Watson bought 11 cars online in Florida and Washington, D.C., in August 2016 and brought them to Tennessee for sale.

He could legally sell up to five vehicles without having an auto dealer's license. He didn't have that, but he did obtain a salesman's license with Best Buy Auto and Leasing in September 2016. Court documents allege Watson forged titles on six vehicles he sold by writing in the dealership's name after his own.

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A Bradley County grand jury returned six felony charges against Watson in July alleging he held or used forged or falsified titles in those vehicle sales. Watson challenged the charges, saying the "either-or" language could lead to a non-unanimous jury verdict. In September, the grand jury came back with 12 separate counts and the original six were dismissed.

Logan contends in court filings that the state hasn't offered any evidence the sheriff committed a crime under Tennessee law.

The law says it's a crime to possess or use, with fraudulent intent, an altered certificate of title or registration issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles or a Tennessee county clerk. But the titles Watson admits altering were issued by Florida, Logan said in court documents.

Logan also asserts that the law subsection under which Watson is charged is so undefined it is unconstitutional and fails to include a required element of the crime.

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.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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