News

State Approves $25M Mental Health Hospital

A state board has approved a request by Erlanger Hospital to build a new $25 million, 88-bed mental health hospital in Chattanooga, the Times Free Press reports. While opponents argued that the real need in the state is not new beds, but more staffing for existing beds, Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes backed the project, saying too many of the people he sees in his courtroom have significant mental health issues but no place to go for treatment. “This week, I have seen 12 individuals who needed care at [the state mental health facility], but they can’t get in. So we try to keep them in a jail cell,” he told the panel.

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Haslam Not a ‘Fan’ of Reducing Marijuana Penalties

Tennessee’s two largest cities – Memphis and Nashville – are considering proposals that would make possession of a small amount of marijuana more like getting a speeding ticket. But Local Memphis reports that Gov. Bill Haslam is not a fan of the idea. “While I do think we’ve had some people who have spent more time in jail than they need to for that. I’m not in favor of decriminalizing that,” he told the station.

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New Rutherford County Judge to Hold Court at Jail

New General Sessions Court Judge Lisa Eischeid will begin hearing cases Sept. 1 at the Rutherford County jail because the courtroom being prepared for her is not slated to be ready until November, the Murfreesboro Post reports. “It’s moving in the right direction, and our judge-elect understands the situation, and she’s equipped mentally to manage through the transition period,” Mayor Ernest Burgess said. The position was created to cut down on the jail population and ease the burden on the other three judges. County officials also are looking at other ways to reduce inmate numbers, including a pre-trial release program in which low-risk defendants would be screened as quickly as possible for release on bond or their own recognizance.

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Tennessee Participating in Multi-state Opioid Initiative

Tennessee is one of nine states participating in an opioid abuse summit taking place in Cincinnati this week, the Times Free Press reports. The primary goals of the group are to improve cooperation across borders and jurisdictions, identify best practices for testing and treatment services and increase access to prescription drug data. Other states involved are Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Speakers were to include Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John Minton. In related news, the U.S. Surgeon General has taken the unprecedented step of contacting 2.3 million prescribers in America to ask them to help change the way the country thinks about addiction as opioids cause more than 1,000 emergency room visits and 78 deaths each day.

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Haslam: Special Session May be Needed to Save Federal Funding

Gov. Bill Haslam says he does not want to call a special session of the legislature to fix the state’s drunk driving laws, but the possibility of losing $60 million might just force him to do so, WPLN reports. Haslam’s comments come in response to warnings from transportation officials that the state will lose $60 million in highway funds if it does not lower the blood alcohol limit for 18 to 20 year olds to 0.02. Lawmakers had increased the limit to 0.08 earlier this year but imposed tougher penalties, including jail time, for violations. They say they did not know the change would be a problem. Haslam hopes to convince federal authorities to hold off until lawmakers reconvene in January, but supports a special session if that is what is needed to retain the funding.

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Judge Celebrates 1st Graduate of Trafficking Court

Davidson County’s sex and human trafficking court celebrated its first graduate this week, the Tennessean reports. For years, the woman was trafficked, sold to others for sex by her husband. She used drugs, leading to an addiction, and was stabbed several times during an attack. Instead of languishing in jail, she became one of the first participants in the Cherished H.E.A.R.T.S. intervention court, which provides resources and treatment to women who are arrested for crimes such as prostitution or drug offenses. A dozen women currently are participating in the program, which is overseen by Judge Casey Moreland.

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Haslam Defends Private Prison Operations

Despite calls by the federal government and a Tennessee state employees group to end the practice of using private companies to manage prisons, Gov. Bill Haslam defended their use, the Nashville Post reports. “Our corrections folks are confident they provide the same level of oversight and the same accountability to private operators as we do in our own facilities,” Haslam said. Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operates four prisons in Tennessee, along with jails in Davidson and Hamilton counties. The state Department of Correction said it has no plans to end its contract with CCA.

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New Fee Could Fund Advocacy Centers

Two organizations helping victims of abuse may get additional financial assistance through a new fee assessed by the courts, the Tullahoma News reports. A Coffee County committee recently approved a $45 victims’ assistance fee to benefit the local Children’s Advocacy Center and Haven of Hope. The proposed fee would be collected from individuals convicted of or entering a plea of guilty to a crime that imposes a fine of over $500 and possible imprisonment. The county would keep $3 while the rest would be split between the groups. The full commission will vote on the issue in September.

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Judge Denies Teen’s Request for New Attorney

Hamilton County Judge Barry Steelman yesterday rejected an attorney’s petition to be removed from the case of Cortez Sims, a 19-year-old accused of killing one and wounding three during a January 2015 shooting. Brandy Spurgin said she made the motion after Sims made it clear he wanted a new lawyer and filed an ethics complaint against her. After the ruling, Sims asked Steelman, “You’re forcing me to go to trial with a lawyer I don’t want?” Steelman responded he was not answering any questions, the Times Free Press reports.

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State Employees Group Calls for End to Private Prisons

The association representing state employees is calling on Tennessee to stop using private prisons, a move that comes a week after the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would end its contracts with private prison operators. It is a new issue for the Tennessee State Employee Association, which has typically focused on issues involving working conditions and compensation. The group, which represents correctional officers and other state employees, argues there is “simply no good reason to continue paying a private prison company that provides an inferior product, lower levels of safety and security, and debatable cost savings for the public.” The Tennessean has the story.

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Date Set for Todd Sign Theft Trial

An Oct. 11 trial date has been set in the case of state Rep. Curry Todd, R-Collierville, who was charged earlier this month with stealing opponent Mark Lovell’s yard signs, the Commercial Appeal reports. Todd acknowledges taking the signs, but contends the landowner gave him exclusive rights to place signs at the property. According to police, the property owner says he never gave anyone access to the land. Regardless of how the legal case unfolds, Todd will not be returning to the House. He lost his primary election to Lovell earlier this month.

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Armstrong’s Lawyer: Verdict is Legally Inconsistent

Former state Rep. Joe Armstrong’s lawyer is arguing in a new motion that if his client was not found guilty of trying to evade taxes, then he cannot be found guilty of filing a false tax return, Knoxnews reports. The motion also argues that prosecutors were required to present evidence distinguishing the crime of tax evasion from that of filing a false tax return, which they did not do. Lawyers are asking the court to judicially acquit Armstrong of the felony charge or grant a new trial. Armstrong, a Knoxville Democrat who served 14 terms in the state legislature, was on trial earlier this month in connection with the handling of income taxes on a $321,000 windfall from a cigarette tax stamp deal he made with a Knoxville tobacco wholesaler in 2007.

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AG Clarifies Opinion on Red Light Cameras

Expanding on an opinion released in July, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery clarified Monday that cities may contract with red-light camera companies and employees of those companies may view the video footage without violating state law. Under current law, only a certified police officer can determine whether laws were broken, but since vendors engaging in sorting or pre-screening of video footage “are not making a determination that a violation has occurred” their involvement is allowable. Read the opinion and a story about the decision in Knoxnews.

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Public Defender Brings Own Prison Experience to Job

Keeda Haynes spent five years in prison. Now, 14 years later, she is working for the Nashville Public Defender’s Office helping others maneuver the criminal justice system and, hopefully, keeping them from “being swallowed up by an unfeeling system.” Peter Strianse, the lawyer who defended her on the criminal charges and gave her a job after she was released from prison, says the experience makes her a unique advocate. “She knows what it’s like to be incarcerated, to feel helpless and have to rely on a lawyer.” The Nashville Scene chronicles her journey.

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Funding Jeopardized by New Juvenile DUI Law

Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper is criticizing Tennessee Republicans for changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law that could lead to a loss of $60 million in federal highway funding, the Associated Press reports. The new law divides teens into two groups: 16 and 17 year olds, who remain subject to the federally-recommended limit of 0.02 blood alcohol content and 18 to 20 year olds, which have an allowable limit of 0.08 percent but are now subject to the same penalties as adult drivers. The bill’s sponsor said legislators were not warned of a potential conflict with federal standards but would work to address the issue. Humphrey on the Hill has the story.

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Jail So Crowded Officers Told to Keep Inmates in Patrol Cars

The Bradley County Jail was so overcrowded last night that officials declined to accept any more prisoners and told patrol officers they may need to keep inmates in their cars overnight, Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. A notice sent to officers said we “will not be taking anyone in on warrants tonight. There are 75 inmates in booking with nowhere to house them. Patrol officers will have to sit in [their] cars until we have room. Which may be until court tomorrow.”

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Memphis Official Proposes $50 Fine for Pot Possession

On the heels of the Nashville Metro Council’s initial vote in support of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, Memphis City Council member Berlin Boyd says he plans to introduce a similar ordinance when the council’s Public Safety Committee meets next week. The proposal would institute a civil penalty and possible community service for knowingly possessing less than one-half ounce of marijuana. Local Memphis reports on the story.

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2016 Criminal Justice Handbook Now Available

The 2016 edition of the Criminal Justice Handbook is now available from the Administrative Office of the Courts. The handbook contains more than 600 pages of Tennessee criminal statutes and court rules and is available as a printed volume or on a CD. It is updated each year to reflect changes made by the legislature and the courts. The book includes chapters 11 through 17 of Title 39 as well as sections on the Sentencing Act, Rules of Criminal Procedure and Rules of Evidence. The appendix includes sections on DUI, warrants and summons, bail and a list of offenses by criminal class and code. Find out how to order a copy now.

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Judge Plans 10th Judicial District Mental Health Court

Circuit Court Judge Andrew Freiberg has announced plans to create a new mental health court in the 10th Judicial District, the Cleveland Banner reports. Freiberg said the move recognizes the need to rehabilitate individuals through appropriate mental health treatment as well as the limitations of the traditional criminal justice system in dealing with repeat non-violent offenders with mental health issues. The court, set to launch in January, will serve every county in the district, including Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk.

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Nashville Marijuana Bill Survives 1st Vote

A proposal to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana survived an unexpected first vote by the Metro Nashville Council Tuesday night, the Tennessean reports. The group voted 32-4, with one abstention, to advance a bill that would decrease the penalty for knowingly possessing or exchanging a half-ounce or less of marijuana to a $50 civil fine or 10 hours of community service. Under state law, individuals convicted of possessing less than one ounce of marijuana face a misdemeanor charge punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

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Man Pleads Guilty in Loniel Greene Shooting

A 20-year-old man accused of shooting former Metro councilman Loniel Greene pleaded guilty Wednesday to aggravated assault and was placed on supervised probation for three years. Under the plea deal, Brandon Hunt-Clark also must participate in a “violence interruption” class, the Tennessean reports. Greene, who resigned from the city council in January, is facing legal action of his own. Last month, he pleaded not guilty to a count of coercion of a witness in a case involving his cousin.

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VW Likely to Face Criminal Penalties

Volkswagen is expected to face criminal and civil penalties for circumventing Clean Air Act standards, but prosecutors have not yet decided the specific criminal charges they might bring against the automaker, according to the Wall Street Journal. The paper reported today that the Justice Department is negotiating a settlement with the car maker but those familiar with the matter said there will be “significant” financial penalties. The Chattanooga Times Free Press has a summary of the article.

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DA: Increasing Juvenile Age Would Have Broad Complications

Responding to a proposal by Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael to expand the jurisdiction of state juvenile courts to individuals up to 25 years old, District Attorney General Amy Weirich said such a change would prompt a long, complicated process. The issues that would need to be addressed include expanding the number of personnel, facilities and treatment programs. Michael acknowledged his proposal would prompt a “massive change” and that he does not have easy answers on how to pay for it, the Commercial Appeal reports.

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Moreland Named New Sessions Court Presiding Judge

Nashville General Sessions Judge Casey Moreland has been selected as the new presiding judge of the court. He will replace Judge Rachel Bell on Sept. 1. The court meets every August to select a new presiding judge. Bell had reportedly made it clear she was not interested in re-appointment. “I'm very proud he will be my successor,” Bell told the Tennessean. “He brings a wealth of knowledge, leadership qualities and a strong commitment to our general sessions courts.” Moreland became a judge in 1998 and served as presiding judge from 2003-2006. In 2003, he founded treatment court, a special program focused on providing rehabilitation to offenders.

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300 Inmates Moved out of Downtown Jail

The Davidson County Sheriff’s office on Friday transferred 300 inmates from the downtown Nashville criminal justice center to a facility on Harding Place. After 34 years of processing and housing criminals, the jail now sits empty, but workers will soon begin demolishing it with the goal of replacing it within three to four years. The new jail will provide needed features, including a separate place to house the mentally ill, who long have been housed with criminals. Fox 17 has the story.

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