By BRIAN GRAVES
Special Judge Don Ash released a ruling Thursday denying Sheriff Eric Watson’s motions to dismiss the 12 felony counts against him concerning six car titles.Ash did grant a “motion in limine” …
Special Judge Don Ash released a ruling Thursday denying Sheriff Eric Watson’s motions to dismiss the 12 felony counts against him concerning six car titles.
Ash did grant a “motion in limine” which would limit any testimony in a trial, “specifically any information contained in the summary of [Special Agent] Barry Carrier,” regarding other allegations of misconduct by Watson.
That second motion would prevent the prosecution from using any of the other allegations, mainly submitted by Bradley County Commisisoner Dan Rawls, which were to have been investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and would strictly limit the case to information concerning the sheriff’s involvement with the six car titles in question in the separate case which was brought by the Tennessee Department of Revenue.
It is a standard motion in such cases used to shield a jury from information concerning a defendant that could possibly be unfairly prejudicial to the defendant if heard at trial.
The 12 counts are against Watson as an individual, and not in his official capacity as sheriff.
The Bradley County grand jury originally had issued six presentments that he did "unlawfully, knowingly, and feloniously hold or use a certificate of title or certificate of registration, knowing the document to have been altered, forged or falsified."
Presentments are charges that are handed down by a grand jury without a bill of indictment being given to them.
Watson’s attorney James Logan argued the wording “hold or use” could be confusing to jurors.
"The first indictment said that he did one act or another," Logan said. "Different jurors could have different opinions, the way that is stated."
According to Logan, the use of the words "hold" and "use" are not specific enough to tell jurors which charges they are considering, and that could lead to a delay of a trial.
On Sept. 21, the grand jury revamped the charges to allege the sheriff “held” altered, forged or falsified titles on the six vehicles in question and he “used” altered, forged or falsified titles on the six vehicles in question.
The 12 felony counts are Class E charges, each being punishable by one to six years in prison and fines of up to $3,000 if convicted.
The motion to dismiss was based on two issues: whether the wording of the presentments was sufficient and the constitutionality of the statutes under which Watson was charged.
Watson’s first argument was the presentments “each failed to include a necessary element of the crime — namely that the maker of the alteration acted with fraudulent intent.”
In other words, even if Watson altered the titles, was it done with any criminal intent?
Judge Ash wrote: “Subsection three provides ‘it is a Class E felony for any person to … hold or use the document or plate, knowing the document or plate to have been altered forged or falsified. Defendant contends ‘the document’ refers to a certificate of title altered, forged or falsified with fraudulent intent.”
“Thus according to the defendant, a subsection three violation occurs only where a defendant knowingly holds or uses a certificate of title which has been altered, forged or falsified with fraudulent intent.
“Because the presentment charges only the defendant knowingly used or held an altered, forged or falsified certificate of title, he contends it fails to include an essential element and must be dismissed.”
The State contended “the document” refers simply to a certificate of title and, as charged against Watson, such a violation occurs where a defendant knowingly holds or uses an altered, forged or falsified certificate of title.
“The court must presume,” Ash wrote, “had the legislature intended to impose a fraudulent intent [criminal intent] into subsection three, it would have done so.”
Ash found there was no fraudulent intent requirement in the subsection and denied the “motion to dismiss for failure to include a necessary and required element of the offense.”
It is under this ruling that the judge added a footnote stating that, “In any event, the Court finds the terms ‘forge’ and ‘falsify’ presume fraudulent intent. Despite its omission of the term ‘fraudulent intent,’ the presentment charges defendant with holding/using a certificate of registration knowing the document was fraudulently forged or falsified.”
Logan told the Cleveland Daily Banner the footnote appears contradictory to the denial ruling.
“What that footnote says to me is the judge is saying that it sufficiently charges him as knowing the document was forged or falsified,” Logan said. “That suggests the sheriff would have to know the change was done fraudulently with a fraudulent intent. The judge is saying both things.”
“The judge denied the motion to dismiss on the grounds it did not say in the presentment a necessary and required element of the offense,” he said. “He is saying that does not have to be in the indictment. But, in the footnote, he says the terms used in the charges presume fraudulent intent. Thus, he is charged with holding the document knowing it was fraudulently forged or falsified, which is an allegation I have never seen that there was any fraud involved.”
Watson’s second argument was that the statute under which he was charged was “unconstitutionally vague." However, the judge found the charges Watson is facing are “clearly defined so as to pass constitutional muster.”
Logan said the possibility of appealing the ruling is being considered, but noted should that occur it might take the case into next fall.
If there is no appeal, a jury trial would begin on Jan. 22.
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