The Investigators: Felonies Erased

A Tennessee law designed to clear the names of exonerated, first-time felony offenders has disenfranchised the victim of a drive-by shooting in Germantown.
A Tennessee law designed to clear the names of exonerated, first-time felony offenders has disenfranchised the victim of a drive-by shooting in Germantown.

(WMC TV) - A Tennessee law designed to clear the names of exonerated, first-time felony offenders has disenfranchised the victim of a drive-by shooting in Germantown.

Three Germantown city officials and a Tennessee state representative confirmed that in August 2009, a male and a female fired an unidentified weapon at Germantown's Taylor Hazlerig when she stopped her car at the intersection of Riverdale Rd. and Eastern Ave.

"I remember looking and seeing the gunshot," said Hazlerig, who described how the shot penetrated the left rear passenger window. "Glass went everywhere. It felt like a firecracker. I remember slamming on the gas and just taking off."

According to sources close to the investigation, the two suspects were found later near Hazlerig's parents' home. They were arrested, charged with aggravated assault and released on bond, according to three Germantown city officials.

Terri Moore, Hazlerig's mother, said despite assurances from Germantown City Prosecutor Joe Lee Wyatt that his office would pursue the charges and seek restitution, the suspects were granted diversion in August of this year. After a period of probation, their charges were expunged.

"We were never notified of anything," said Moore. "For two years, I was constantly calling the prosecutor, and nobody would talk to me about it."

Wyatt wouldn't talk on the record with the Action News 5 Investigators either.

Because under Tennessee law, if he did, he could go to jail.

Title 40 of the Tennessee Code Annotated outlines criminal court procedures. The law establishes guidelines for handling the information of expunged cases. According to the law, once offenders have met conditions for probation and their cases are expunged, every record of the case -- affidavits, mug shots, case records, crime scene photos -- must "be removed and destroyed" in order to protect the exonerated.

The law, supported by two Tennessee attorney general opinions, also mandates that public disclosure of the contents of those cases and the "...release of confidential records or information contained therein other than to law enforcement agencies for law enforcement purposes shall be a Class A misdemeanor." A Class A misdemeanor is punishable by less than a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

Because the public case file of the Hazlerig case has been destroyed, Action News 5 had to confirm the incident happened through information shared by multiple Germantown city and state officials. Action News 5's lawyers interpreted the law's language to prohibit us from identifying the suspects who shot at Hazlerig.

John Campbell, Shelby County assistant district attorney, said the law enables the city prosecutors of the municipal misdemeanor courts in Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville and Millington to grant diversion -- and ultimately, expunction -- of the cases of certain first-time felony offenders in aggravated assault, property and drug crimes (not including DUI).

The point, said Campbell, is to help alleviate heavy caseloads in the district attorney general's office and to show grace to specific categories of first-time offenders.

"The case is dismissed, and there is no record, and basically, it is treated by law like it never existed," Campbell said. "The intent of the legislature is to give people a second chance when it is appropriate."

Although under the law Campbell could not specifically discuss the Hazlerig case, he said a case where a suspect discharged a weapon in an aggravated assault without hurting someone would be an appropriate candidate for diversion and ultimately, expunction.

But records requests by the Action News 5 Investigators revealed the law's requirement of the destruction of public case files -- plus its threat of imprisonment or fines for disclosing case information -- have made it difficult for city court clerks to establish a uniform system of record-keeping.

In fact, the four city court clerks of Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville and Millington answered our requests for statistics on their expunged cases four different ways:

* GERMANTOWN:  Between Aug. 2009 and Aug. 2011, 338 felonies originated in city court. 121 were held to state (turned over to the district attorney general). But 217 -- 64 percent -- were unaccounted for in the records request. The request was accompanied by a statement from Germantown City Court Clerk Billy Price:  "All expunged cases are redacted from the records and cannot and will not be discussed according to the law."

* BARTLETT:  Between Aug. 2009 and Aug. 2011, 481 felonies originated in city court. 329 were held to state. 152 were reduced to misdemeanors or dismissed. But Bartlett's system does not break down the dismissed cases into how many were expunged.

* COLLIERVILLE:  Collierville's city court clerk lumped felonies and misdemeanors together during the same time period by expunction. 841 were expunged with one or more charges. 157 were expunged after conviction on at least one other charge, according to the clerk's response.

* MILLINGTON:  Millington's city court clerk declined to fill our records request and referred it and all questions to the Shelby County district attorney general's office.

"It's such a slap in the face," said Moore. "Just to have (the case) thrown out. It's a slap in the face to a lot of people."

Moore and Hazlerig turned to their state representative -- Rep. Mark White, a Republican whose district includes Germantown -- for assistance. White would not consent to an on-camera interview with Action News 5.

But White did acknowledge an e-mail he sent to Moore regarding the aggravated assault on her daughter. White, in a portion of the message, said, "I followed up on the case and as you say it has been expunged...Leaders in Germantown are aware of your case and concern...I would contact atty. Joe Lee Wyatt if you have not received restitution by now."

"I wasn't looking for restitution," said Moore. "I was looking for some justice for my daughter who'd been shot."

Shot at -- her daughter's faith like her car window shattered -- in a law that blurs the faces of two shooting suspects, as well as the line between right and wrong.

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