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A Chattanooga police officer enforces the state law for truckers upon noncommercial private users in a Hixson Pike traffic arrest. (Photo David Tulis)

An Examination of Whether Prosecuting Attorneys and Courts Have Been Corrupted to Protect Illicit Revenue Streams to Local Governmental Bodies Generated Through Unauthorized Law Enforcement Actions

JACKSON, Tenn. — The following is based on observations of the workings of the court system and law enforcement and a reading of the applicable laws related to vehicles and their use, i.e. traffic laws.

By Danny Murphy

The purpose of this essay is to enlighten people as to how they have misunderstood certain laws and may have been fooled into surrendering certain fundamental rights and requesting that portions of their lives be regulated by government.

Root of the evil

Local governmental bodies, cities and counties, and the state collect significant amounts of revenue from vehicle registration fees, driver license fees, usually easily-collected traffic fines, asset forfeitures, court costs, payment of taxes and licensing fees for related services such as those paid by bondsmen, driver training courses, vehicle inspection services and other related industries, including criminal defense attorneys that have grown up around this system. There are routine news stories of the need for more money for various governmental services.

A continually annoying sight is an excessive number of flashing blue lights on the streets and highways on the first weekday of each new month with the police turning into revenue-collecting highwaymen snagging hapless motorists with just-expired vehicle registration. Once, a police cruiser was even observed stationed across the street from a turn into a church entrance presumably checking the registration on the plates of cars as they turned to go to a worship service on a Wednesday evening.

Enforcement via dept. of revenue

The laws governing the licensing and registration of vehicles are gathered in the first six chapters of Title 55 of the Tennessee Code,, the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Title and Registration Law. Tennessee Code § 55-2-101 provides in part, “Except as otherwise specifically provided by law, chapters 1-6 of this title shall be administered by the Commissioner of Revenue.” 

This section goes on to provide specific law for county clerks being delegated authority by the Commissioner to administer these 6 chapters, for purposes such as the registration of vehicles. Further, § 55-2-102 provides for the Commissioner of Revenue to “appoint deputies, subordinate officers, clerks, investigators, and other employees who may be necessary to carry out chapters 1-6 of this title.” 

[Danny Murphy was born and reared in Jackson, Tenn.  After graduating from high school, he majored in chemistry at Tennessee Technological University, and followed that with graduate school at the University of North Carolina.  He has taught university courses, worked with computers in various capacities, and worked with two commercial chemistry labs.  He began to wake up and become aware of his constitutional liberties in the fall of 1993 when he went to an Irwin Schiff seminar and talked with a few of the other people in attendance. — Ed.]

No provision has been found for anyone other than the Commissioner of Revenue being authorized to administer, or enforce, the first 6 chapters of Title 55, which includes the registration of vehicles. The Commissioner is authorized to appoint as many personnel that might be needed to fulfill this duty. 

This being so, city police and county sheriff deputies making stops and giving citations for expired registrations is done without authority to do so. 

The laws governing driver licenses are contained in Chapter 50 of Title 55 of the Tennessee Code, Uniform Classified and Commercial Driver License Act. Similar to the Registration Law, the body authorized to enforce the laws related to driver licenses is given by Tennessee Code § 55-50-201, “This chapter shall be administered by the department of safety.” Once again, no provision has been found for Chapter 50 to be administered, i.e. enforced, by sheriffs or police.

Vehicle & being ‘transported’

The idea of vehicle is considered the most fundamental concept for the traffic laws because all the regulations in Title 55 (Transportation Code or Motor Vehicle Code in other places) are about vehicles and their use. If a car, pickup truck, or motorcycle does not meet the particular conditions specified by the legal definition of vehicle, then it is not a vehicle in law, by definition, and nothing in Title 55 is applicable for regulating it.

The first definition of vehicle provided in the Tennessee Code is in Title 55 § 55-1-103(e) :

“Vehicle” and “freight motor vehicle” means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway, excepting devices moved by human power or used exclusively upon stationary rails.

Some might have difficulty in overcoming our ingrained concept of what is a vehicle. Our concept has been formed from being exposed to years and years of thousands of advertisements by car dealerships, auto repair shops, tire dealers and others using vehicle in the common vernacular as a generalized term for something used for moving about. Our mind presents us with an image of some physical device used for such a purpose.

The meaning in law is very different. It can be likened to the concept of merchandise. We go to a store and find all kinds of merchandise for sale. We might pick up a coffee maker, a new shirt, a watch, some batteries, and a dog chew toy. Each of these items has a very different physical character and different purpose, but each is an item of the store’s merchandise. Merchandise is something of a generalized abstract classification of items held for sale by a merchant. 

Leaving a store with its merchandise is called shoplifting, but once the merchandise is purchased, its status instantly changes from merchandise to personal property. 

In similar fashion, vehicle, in law, is also an abstract classification that can change in an instant. Seeing this requires careful examination of the words and terms used in the definition of vehicle.

The essential part of this definition is, “means every device in, upon, or by which any person or property is or may be transported or drawn upon a highway.” Some minor modifications might be found to other parts of the definition, but this portion has always been found present in definitions in some other chapters of Title 55 and has been found in the definitions used by all other states thus far checked, particularly in chapters on registration. The basic term indicating something physical is “device.” Also, isn’t it interesting that “vehicle” and “freight motor vehicle” are the exact same thing here? 

Essayist Danny Murphy has worked most of his life in the computer field. He resides in Jackson, Tenn. (Photo Danny Murphy)

The following analysis of the definition of vehicle might seem tedious and pedantic, but it is essential.

Important, but easily overlooked, is the use or the word “may.” The primary definition of the term “may” used in the definition is, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Ed., to indicate permitted:

may,vb. 1. To be permitted to

We’re all well accustomed to the need to get permission to drive our cars and other vehicles on the streets and highways. This permission is shown by the license plate (tax receipt. — ed.) and registration sticker. Try going without a current sticker on your license plate and see if you are not soon informed that you don’t have permission to do that.

Another important and easily overlooked word here is the “or” showing up between is and may. This divides the sentence into two alternative branches by which a device is to be considered a vehicle:

a) the device is actually used to provide transportation for any person or property upon a public highway, or

b) the device is permitted, or licensed, to be used to provide transportation for any person or property upon a public highway.

Transport is another important word in the definition of vehicle, and here is taken to mean provide transportation. The importance of transportation is that it is a term of commerce:

transportation,n.1. The movement of goods or persons from one place to another by a carrier.

carrier. 1. An individual or organization (such as a shipowner, a railroad, or an airline) that contracts to transport passengers or goods for a fee.

Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004)

Also showing transportation to be a term indicating commerce is Tennessee Code § 55-50-102(9):

“Commerce” means:

(A) Trade, traffic, and transportation within the jurisdiction of the United States; between a place in a state and a place outside of the state, including a place outside the United States; and

(B) Trade, traffic, and transportation in the United States that affects any trade, traffic, and transportation in subdivision (9)(A)

The definitions of Title 55 show that it is a system of regulation over that particular portion of commerce known as transportation such as freight lines, bus lines, taxis, delivery services and other commercial movers of persons or property using the public roadways of Tennessee.

The only requirement in Title 55 for registration and licensing is for vehicles and not for exclusively personal-use cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles, or other devices. So, how did we get into the situation that our cars or other devices that are used only for personal purposes end up being considered vehicles for commercial uses? Technically, we each did it to ourselves.

How did situation come about?

From the definition of vehicle, a device that “may be” or, that is, permitted or, that is, licensed to transport any person or property upon a highway is a vehicle. Having voluntarily taken the special privileges granted by the vehicle license, the responsibilities that go with it are accepted as well. Nothing is shown in the Code providing that using the device in some non-commercial manner suspends the obligations assumed under the vehicle license as long as the license is in effect. 

The solution would logically appear to be to give up the license. It wasn’t even being used for its legal purpose anyway, to generate income through some commercial use of the public highways.

However, logic sometimes fails. A reason for this failure was succinctly stated by Upton Sinclair after running for governor of California in 1934, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

If one does the logical thing by surrendering the license plate and other required documents to the issuing authority, most assuredly the local police will eventually notice and issue a citation for having an unlicensed vehicle on a public roadway. Explaining the facts and logic on the side of the street will most likely be unproductive. The best one could hope for is to be allowed to voluntarily show up before a judge to explain.

Most of the police probably really do want to follow the law as it was passed by the Legislature, but, for some reason, there are gaps in their training about things they do routinely. 

Testimony by a city police sergeant with 13 years on the force was observed in a case that began with an expired license registration sticker. When given a copy of the definition of vehicle and asked to describe what he had observed about the car that lead him to conclude that the car met the conditions for the status of vehicle, he clearly had no idea what the question meant.

He eventually said something about it having wheels. Apparently, his concept of vehicle came from exposure to those same thousands upon thousands of car ads from which the rest of us got our impression. Further, if he were properly aware through his training that the authority provided for enforcing the vehicle licensing and registration law had been limited to the Commissioner of Revenue, he probably would never have made the stop in the first place. 

Getting back to taking the logical step of giving up the vehicle license. The first time to court will probably not involve talking with a judge but only with some prosecuting attorney who is just going to be finding out if all the deficiencies have been corrected. If so, he looks at the documentation showing that everything is as he thinks it should be, and sends you on to a clerk to get a few papers and pay some amount. 

However, upon hearing your explanation of why you had done what you did, he will probably say that you were misinformed, or that he sees why you might think so, but you really don’t understand, or that if that were really true, wouldn’t some lawyer have already brought it up, or that the judge will never go for it. Review the Upton Sinclair quote above.

 If you stand your ground and finally get before a judge and explain the law and logic of what you’ve done, you’ll probably be advised to get a lawyer before you get into any more trouble or go into many of the same arguments that the prosecutor had already gone through. Remember the Upton Sinclair quote above.

Suppose you hold out until you are set for trial? Trial is different from just talking to the prosecutor and the judge on their own. There’re all those rules to go by to get your evidence in or have it disallowed. How much good can come from explaining this to the judge again? 

How about a jury?

Can this be explained to a group of ordinary people in the time allowed? They’ve been subjected to the conditioning of those same thousands and thousands of commercials from which you’ve just barely overcome yourself. They’re apt to think that you’re some kind of nut to believe that you’ve discovered something overlooked by all those defense attorneys for all these years. 

Many might only think, “If I have to do it, then you have to do it.” Maybe a lawyer should be consulted who’s accustomed to dealing with all of this.

 Some experienced attorneys listen to your explanations and argument and likely say they’ve never heard of such a thing before (which is very likely correct because everyone already knew what a vehicle is without need of consulting the definition) and none of them think it will work. 

Get your TAN now: Transportation Administrative Notice creates cause of action vs. cops, traffic court defense

A fresh new attorney is found who is looking to get a practice started and turns out to be enthusiastic about this great new idea. A week later he looks all deflated and thinks things will turn out better with a more traditional approach and that he can probably work out a reasonable deal to settle the whole thing. So what happened during that week?

Very likely, this was discussed with some other lawyer acquaintances, some of whom might have been interested, but eventually someone is going to let it be known that this young lawyer is going to start having some problems if he continues this pursuit (Word from an overseer? Back channel politics? What are those poor defense attorneys going to do if all those cases that started with a traffic stop go away?). Contemplate, once again, the Upton Sinclair quote.

Local governmental bodies have grown accustomed to and are even dependent on the revenues coming in from registration fees and fines related to vehicle use. There are even items in the budgets for income from the licensing fees, court fees, and fines. Most of the people in those governmental bodies probably have no more idea of what a vehicle actually is than any of the rest of us did. However, somewhere up the line there must be someone who knows what’s going on well enough to keep a cap on the truth. Otherwise, some time or another, the truth would spill out and the game would be spoiled.

These overseers might only be certain lawyers and judges. In the example above of the police sergeant, he clearly did not know the significance of the question, but surprised glances were observed going between the judge and the prosecutor. They acted as if nothing of significance happened and seemed to just go on as usual to more common issues (after all, any idiot inherently knows what a vehicle is. Don’t let on that we know this is important.) If the witness could not give testimony to establish that he had stopped a vehicle, then there is no case.

Everything in Title 55 deals with the regulation of vehicles and their use. If there is no vehicle, there is no requirement for registration, driver license, inspection, or any of the myriad regulatory requirements placed on vehicles.

Further, these officers of the court continued to pretend that Code § 55-2-101 had no bearing on the case before them even though the cop stated under oath that he wasn’t an officer of the Department of Revenue and had not been delegated any authority by the Commissioner of Revenue to enforce the registration law. After all, what would happen to the cities and counties if they limited themselves to enforcing laws (and collecting fines and fees) for which they had actually been authorized? 

Does responsibility lie anywhere else?

Looking to find who trains the police officers, one comes upon TLETA, the Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, which “was authorized by the 1963 General Assembly for the purpose of training state, county and city law enforcement officers.” This would seem to be the place where city police would learn what they’re supposed to do and not do.

A request was made for copies of written training materials for traffic control and investigations for review. The reply indicates that TLETA does not disseminate any training materials to the public. While there is bound to be some good-sounding reasons for this, it can also be viewed as concealment of its failures or omissions of instruction from outsiders who then might point them out.

Along with TLETA one finds POST, Peace Officer Standards & Training Commission, which “is responsible for developing and enforcing standards and training for all local police officers.” Part of these standards is certifying the curricula taught, presumably part of that is deciding what particulars of the law are taught to the officers in training. Exclusion of the limited authority provided by Sections 55-2-101 and 55-50-201 and of the legal meaning of vehicle could be instituted here. POST also does not disseminate any training materials to the public, so who outside could ever tell? One of the members of POST is an attorney from the Attorney General’s Office who could provide advice as to what to teach about the laws and what is OK to omit.

What have the courts said?

Essentially nothing.

Research failed to find any Tennessee appellate court decisions dealing with § 55-2-101 limiting enforcement of the registration laws to the Commissioner of Revenue, or dealing with § 55-50-201 limiting enforcement of the driver license laws to the Department of Safety. Taking a trip to the local library and consulting the annotated code for any other relevant information, such as attorney general opinions, provided no relevant results.

Research did find a few Tennessee appellate court decisions reciting the definition of vehicle, but none of them provided a detailed analysis of the definition as provided here. In one decision, the appellate court recited the definition of vehicle in a manner that appeared to be mocking the pro se appellant who brought up the issue.

The origins of the vehicle licensing and registration laws of Title 55 were enacted in Tennessee in 1951. Is it anywhere near reasonable to believe that, over this amount of time, no defense attorney ever brought these issues up at trial and then on appeal? Somewhere along the process, any such attorney might have been convinced in some off-record conversation that things would be better for everyone generally not to bring up those issues or that the people just can’t be trusted with that amount of freedom.

However, even if a defense attorney wasn’t talked into providing his client less than the best possible defense then the court might have made a finding in favor of the defendant, dismiss the case, get it quietly out of court, and speak no more of it. Otherwise, overseers guarding against such exposure have methods to kill the case at trial such as the witness failing to appear at trial or being disqualified before giving testimony. 

The State could (purposefully?) lose its case for failure to prove some essential fact without having a judgment against it because of misadministration of the law. The prosecutor could just have the case dismissed for the purpose of justice. (Better business to let one go now than risk missing out on all those others later.) Without a conviction no appeal takes place and no published decision is issued.

Another possible reason for defense attorneys not knowing of these issues is that they can do well enough without them. All that they’re generally doing these days is brokering a plea bargain deal. They’re mostly unaccustomed to going to trial where they might really use this information. Plus, helping put a deal together will probably keep them in better standing with the judges and prosecutors with whom they deal on a continuing basis. This might be the only time with this client. 

Statistics show that over 99% of cases are won by the prosecution, and most of those are settled by a plea bargain deal. The practice has generally become that prosecutors stack on charges to make the possible penalty from being convicted of all charges so horrendous that taking the assurance a deal is preferable to risking going to trial. Even the totally innocent will generally submit to such injustice due to the psychological pressure applied by the prosecutor and maybe their own defense attorney. They might be led to envision dire consequences for their family’s wellbeing should the worst occur at trial.

Conspiracy or compartmentalization?

If anyone qualifies as part of a conspiratorial network it is most surely prosecuting attorneys and the judges they go before and possibly a few aligned defense attorneys.

Most others in government could very well play their role in this deceptive oppression without realizing what they are actually doing. Even if a question arose about the way a job should be done, the advice of some attorney, likely not in writing, would probably be followed.

Some historical perspective

As mentioned above, the legislative origins of the chapters dealing with vehicle licensing and registration date from 1951 in Tennessee. Chapter 50, which deals with driver licenses, dates from 1937, so the driver license is older than the vehicle license.

Upon governmental bodies attempting to enforce a driver license as a requirement for people to be upon the roads and highways with their cars for their own personal purposes, numerous court actions followed with the courts producing findings such as the states can’t convert a right into a privilege, issue a license for that privilege, and charge a fee for the license.

Under our form of government, according to the Declaration of Rights of the Tennessee Constitution, “all power is inherent in the people,” and the government has no power to do anything that the people did not delegate to it. If your neighbor does not have the right and power to require you to obtain his permission to do something, then he does (we do) not have the power to delegate to the state the power to require you to obtain that permission through a license. The only one who can put that obligation on you is you yourself.

After all the court losses over the issue of requiring a driver license, there was probably some clever lawyer who came up with the scheme for the vehicle license and registration as a voluntary system for those who wished to use their car or other device as a vehicle in commerce. The driver license was no longer an arbitrarily imposed obligation for moving about on the roadways but was only required for the use of a “vehicle” on a highway. Voluntarily applying for and accepting a vehicle license and registration, one accepts the obligations that go along with it such as the driver license.

Solutions

In the 2019 Session of the New Hampshire Legislature the Transportation Committee introduced a bill titled, “AN ACT relative to registration of commercial motor vehicles and operator’s/drivers’ licenses.” The first paragraph of the bill provides the Statement of Purpose:

The general court finds that the jurisdiction and authority of the department of safety is limited to only the commercial users of the public ways and that the corporate state employees have, by their silence, failed to fully inform the sovereign people of this state that an automobile has been confirmed by Chief Justice Grimes, in 108 N.H. 386, to be “private property” defined by current RSA 382-A:9-109, as “household goods” and “consumer goods” not for commercial use or for profit or gain. Further, the courts have found that corporate public servants who ignore their accountability as mandated in Article 8, N.H. Bill of Rights have by their silence and failure to fully inform the sovereign people of the consequences arising from the corporate “offer to contract,” is deemed silent deception and inducement by fraud as well as committing the tort of conversion when taking or seizing the certificate of origin in violation of the Fifth Amendment.

An analysis of the bill provides:

This bill restates the “right to travel” and requires the department of safety to provide at no cost to all noncommercial automobile and noncommercial conveyance owners a decal and identification card that state the holder is exempt from registering his or her automobile or other private conveyance under the superior authority of RSA 382-A:9-109 of the Uniform Commercial Code which provides exemption for non-taxable “Consumer Goods” and “Household Goods”. The bill also repeals requirements for certain travelers or drivers to acquire noncommercial drivers’ licenses.

However, this bill was blocked from a vote in the house through adoption of a motion as being “Inexpedient to Legislate”.

About all that is needed is for sufficient notice to be provided to applicants at the site for licensing and registration of vehicles to avoid someone registering their car, pickup truck, motorcycle, or other device under a misunderstanding of the law or facts concerning vehicles. Observation of the use made by many registrants of their registered devices shows that they are not being used for the commercial purposes for which the license is required.

The Legislature could greatly remedy this inequitable situation by making it a duty of the Commissioner of Revenue and the county clerks to provide notice to each applicant for registration of the true meaning and purpose of vehicles and their licensing. Although simple in appearance, this action can be expected to generate tremendous resistance from those governmental bodies whose revenue streams would be diminished and from those who would then be exposed for what they have been doing for so many years.

So, what have we learned?

➤ The Tennessee Code § 55-2-101 authorizes only the Commissioner of Revenue to enforce/administer the vehicle registration laws; not police and sheriffs.

➤ The Tennessee Code at § 55-50-201 authorizes only the Department of Safety to enforce/administer the driver license laws; not police and sheriffs.

➤ Vehicle, in law, is an abstract concept indicating that a device is being used as an implement of commerce.

➤ There is no law requiring that a car, truck, motorcycle, or other device be licensed and registered as a vehicle unless it is going to be used for the commercial purpose that the license permits.

➤ Upon voluntarily requesting and accepting the vehicle license, all the obligations that go with the license are accepted as well such as driver license or inspections.

➤ Title 55 of the Tennessee Code is designed for the regulation of vehicles and their use and is not applicable to a car, truck, motorcycle, or any other highway device that is not being used or licensed to be used as a vehicle.

➤ Cities and counties have become accustomed to the revenue streams generated from vehicle registration fees and the usually easily-collected traffic fines and court costs.

➤ Whenever discussing the issues brought up here, give consideration to the other party’s position within the system described above and always remember Upton Sinclair’s observation that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In the above discussion, Code section references are according to the 2018 Code. Capitalization was used herein for proper names and titles such as Commissioner of Revenue and Department of Safety although such as was not used in the original code sections from which the names and titles were extracted.

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