A judge has delayed Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson's trial on a dozen felony counts related to forged auto titles, court documents show.
Watson's trial was set for Nov. 27 on six counts each of holding an altered, forged or falsified vehicle title and using an altered, forged or falsified title.
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.
Watson's attorney, James F. Logan Jr., contends in court filings that the state hasn't offered any evidence the sheriff violated Tennessee law or had fraudulent intent.
His key point: 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.
Watson doesn't deny that he altered some car titles, but those titles were issued by the state of Florida for vehicles he bought there, Logan said in court documents. That's not a violation of Tennessee law.
Logan also asserts that the law subsection under which Watson is charged is so undefined as to be unconstitutional or fails to include a required element of the crime.
"It's at best ambiguous, if not totally vague," Logan said Monday evening.
The notice from Special Judge Don Ash in the court file said he wanted to explore Logan's constitutional question and that parties would get together on Nov. 27 to reset the trial date.
The Times Free Press reported in December that Watson had bought at least 11 vehicles in Florida and Washington, D.C., in August 2016 and brought them back to Tennessee to sell.
The Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission opened a complaint against Watson for not having a dealer's license and issued him a warning.
A Bradley County grand jury returned six felony charges against Watson in July alleging he held or used forged or falsified titles in of those vehicle sales. Watson challenged the counts, saying the "either-or" language could lead to a non-unanimous jury verdict. The grand jury clarified the charges in September and returned 12 separate counts. The original six counts were dismissed.
Watson is charged under subsection 3 of T.C.A. 55-5-116. The first paragraph of the statute 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 the third paragraph, Logan states in his motion for dismissal, 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 or that it be issued by the state or a county clerk. Nor does it require fraudulent intent on the user's part, he asserts, and the state hasn't offered any evidence for such a charge.
That raises a constitutional issue: whether there is any way for Watson or another defendant to know whether or how he has broken the law, Logan states.
Court documents don't dispute that Watson changed the titles on six vehicles. The documents say Watson sold five vehicles in his own name, the maximum allowed by anyone who doesn't have a dealer's license. On the titles to the other cars, Watson wrote the name of his dealership, Best Buy Auto and Leasing, and sold them through the dealership.
Logan noted that all the buyers were granted titles to their vehicles.
"There is nothing to indicate that the defendant had any state of mind above that of not knowing what he was doing and was negligent in doing it," he wrote in a court filing. At worst, Logan wrote, he have been negligent by failing to properly endorse or deliver titles to the DMV or the buyer. That could be a Class C misdemeanor.
However, when Watson responded to the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission on Dec. 28, he said he'd grown up around the car business.
"With reference to automobiles, my family has been in the automotive and tire business for more than 35 years. My father served as a salesman for many years and the family business does repairs of motor vehicles for many individuals and businesses in our community," Watson wrote.
Though Ash's decision to delay the Nov. 27 trial could be good for Watson's case, Logan objected in a motion that it's bad for his political career.
Not only would a delay cause complications for witnesses and others, he wrote in a motion objecting to the continuance, his client would be "irreparably harmed" if the criminal case against him continues into election season. His motion said Ash could avoid the constitutional issue and dismiss charges against Watson just by finding that the altered Florida titles don't violate Tennessee law.
Noting that qualifying petitions will be available starting this week for the May primary, Logan said a judicial continuance could lead to "absurd results in this election."
"If Watson qualifies and is subsequently convicted, an essentially unpopular person might be the winner of the primary," he wrote.