A woman who was charged in a viral 2018 arrest in Chattanooga is refusing to cooperate with police and prosecutors by yielding her rights and entering a plea deal.
Diana Watt, who works as a caregiver among the elderly, says she has no intention of accepting hastily proffered deals on a stack of criminal charges filed by Chattanooga police officers who ignored a transportation administrative notice to the city and misused a federally controlled transportation law in her arrest.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
She says she is going to trial if she cannot get the charges dismissed in the sessions courtroom of Judge Clarence Shattuck on Feb. 21, Thursday.
“I am going to be” going to trial, Mrs. Watt says, “because she was shocked when she thought I was gonna take the plea. ‘Well, I’m gonna give you six months suspended on this, six months suspended on this one, six month suspended sentence on this one, 30 days suspended’ — and I was, like, ‘No, ma’am, I’m not accepting that.’
“Let me get you in front of the judge — and he is just asking, ‘Why haven’t you gotten an attorney?’ And, well, I’m not able to afford one because I don’t have a job. I’m not working. Every place I go to try to apply, those charges come up, and it knocks me out of a job. So, either way I go, I don’t have an attorney. I’ve been trying to find someone. I really don’t know which way to go. My hands are tied. I kinda feel like giving up, but I know I can’t. Like, I just don’t know which way to turn. I really don’t know what do do, what the next step is.”
“Assault on an officer? I said, sir, I never had a chance to assault anybody. My hands were behind my back. ‘Well, you made a threat.’ I said, ‘What threat?’”
Police department spokespeople Trevor Tomas and Elisa Myzal did not respond to an emailed inquiry soliciting comment on the case.
Not trusting the public defender’s office and unable to afford an attorney, Mrs. Watt does not know how to petition for dismissal. She could have moved for dismissal of the case since she was ready to proceed, but six times the police officer who accuses her of assault was absent.
She made court appearances on the following dates — and the judge granted the prosecutor continuance.
August the 13th.
August the 17th.
January the 31st.
Her next case is set for 8:30 a.m. docket with the arresting officer Brian McClard, No. 961, her accuser.
“I’ve been to court six times, and he’s never showed up,” Mrs. Watt says of the officer whom she is alleged to have assaulted. “He was supposed to show up last week, but he did not show up. So, finally, they are going to try to get him there. So I said, if you didn’t see me assault him, if you didn’t see me threaten him, then why don’t you throw this case out? I did not understand that. I’m hearing multiple things every time I go.
The American judicial-industrial complex knows little of criminal trials. Courts absorb such a backlog of cases — 50,000 a year in Hamilton County — that prosecutors, cops and defendants play a game of negotiation. Cops perjure themselves and file sloppy cases (the Hanson Melvin case) they are confident will face no strict scrutiny at trial, DAs deal with cases they’ve not looked at, and defendants plead because they are intimidated by the custom of charge stacking.
The DA attorney dealing with Mrs. Watt “was really pissed because I did not accept the plea. Really, really, really upset. Then she called him the victim. ‘The victim?’ I said, ‘Ma’am, I have a video’ [showing her being dragged from her car]. She talked over that. She didn’t even want to hear that. When she called me out in the hallway, she was trying to get me to accept these pleas, and she actually was pissed at me for not accepting it. She was highly, highly, highly pissed at me for not accepting. And I was like, ‘That’s great.’
“I said, ‘I didn’t do these things.’ I said, ‘I’m not taking any plea. I’m not doing any kind of suspended sentence on something I did not do.’ She was really — I’m talking about, the look in her face? — She was pissed off. She was really pissed.”
“I’ve been to court six times and [the officer has] not yet showed up. And he’s the victim? And I say, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding.’”
Transportation law misused
The city has been under transportation administrative notice since Feb. 20, 2018, a notice outlining the scope of Tenn. Code Ann. § Title 55, the law controlling motor vehicles and commercial use of the public rights of way. City government has ignored the notice and Chief David Roddy, serving Mayor Andy Berke, has made no changes in traffic arrests to determine first if a party is a vehicle or hire.
Mrs. Watt says she has never operated or driven on the road as a vehicle for hire, and uses the roads for private purposes.
The July 7, 2018 encounter occurred when Officer McClard looked at Mrs. Watt’s white car “traveling” north on Dodson Avenue. He ran her tag and it came back as supposedly belonging to a Jeep. “I then conducted a traffic stop on the vehicle at the Fast Stop, 2285 Wilcox Blvd. Upon investigation I found the driver *** to have a suspended driver license through NCIC. Ms. Watt also did not provide proof of valid insurance. I ran the VIN of the Ford Expedition and found it was not stolen but the registration was expired from August, 2017.”
Officer McClard made no effort to determine if Mrs. Watt’s use of the road was commercial or private, and basing his acts on his personal authority rather than on the statute at Title 55, prepared a citation in lieu of arrest form. Mrs. Watt refused to sign it.
“At this time I advised Mrs. Watt she was under arrest. I ordered her out of her vehicle. Ms. Watt refused to get out of the vehicle. Police then placed Ms. Watt in custody and assisted her out of the vehicle. Ms. Watt yelled and screamed throughout the process of placing her in custody, assisting her out of the vehicle, and placing her into the patrol car. Her yelling and screaming attracted a large crowd at the gas station and the parties began to become hostile with police.”
The narrative omits saying that Mrs. Watt had been put onto the tarmac.
“Additional officers were called to assist with the large crowd. While assisting Ms. Watt to the patrol car she kicked me in the leg. Ms. Watt was then transported to the Hamilton County jail for processing on charges of expired registration, tampering with plates, financial responsibility, refusal to sign, assault, disorderly conduct, retaliation for past action and resisting arrest. While traveling to the jail Ms. Watt made several threatening statements to me. Her vehicle was towed to Denton’s wrecker at 774 Old Lee Highway.”
Mrs. Watt says she asked to get from behind the steering wheel to the right-hand seat so she could look for her registration, a seat from which she was dragged in the video. She asked for the officers to wait for Mrs. Watt’s daughter, Shayla Oattes, to bring her driver license for his review. “But he didn’t want to let that happen,” she says.
“He told me I had to turn myself in on this citation. So, I was like, turning myself in to the county jail? I was trying to save this job. I had just gotten this job. If I did that, I knew if I did that I would lose it, which, by the way, I did. He counted down, just like a child, and the next thing I know I had five cops on me. I had two on my running board, two on the back of me, and one female officer coming around the driver’s side, trying to handcuff the hand that had the phone.”
Her daughter, Jayla, made a video of the arrest.
“I feared for my life, like I didn’t know what was going to happen. I proceeded to try to get out of the car, and I wasn’t moving fast enough or him. That’s when he drug me from the car and I hit the concrete. I was drug from the car.”
Low-threshold access to blacks
The Watt arrest shows how police gain easy access — apart from constitutional protections — to members of the public, particularly among the poor and minorities. She had committed no crime, but is suddenly under arrest for a transportation statute offense under Title 55. That title is administrative law governing the operation of a state agency, the department of safety and homeland security, which has authority over commercial enforcement of transportation pursuant to U.S. Code § Title 49.
The constitutional standard protecting Tennesseans is bypassed when the state uses the commercial statute and uses technical (noncriminal) causes for probable cause (tag expired) for what is a criminal arrest. By law an officer has no authority to arrest a citizen unless he sees the citizen has committed a crime, he has an arrest warrant, he has a search warrant or he has reliable witness testimony that a crime has been committed. This high standard is easily evaded when the state puts all activity on the road under the commercial (technical) standard, where offenses are effectively contract violations of commercial parties.
According to administrative notice’s legal analysis of the statutes and court cases touching on use of the roads, the scope of Title 55 is strictly commercial. But Tennessee courts reject the rules of statutory construction that make clear police powers have as their subject only for-hire vehicle operators, not others using the roads for private purposes. Statutory construction controls how laws are read and interpreted.
Officer McClard appears to have initiated the arrest of Mrs. Watt on his personal authority and under mere color of law. But his act implicates his employer, as well, which ignores the unrebutted administrative notice, prepared as a corrective to illegal police department activity. The city of Chattanooga, nonresponsive to notice after a year and acquiescing to its charge, appears to have acted in bad faith, and maliciously, in Mrs. Watt’s arrest, 137 days after notice was given to city council.