Shelby Co. prosecutors routinely dismiss driving w/o license, insurance charges

Despite an average of more than 40,000 revoked drivers' licenses a year over the last two years, Shelby County prosecutors routinely dismiss cases of drivers who drive without a license, drive on a revoked/suspended license or drive without insurance, according to court records and to Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

"Without a staff of 300 prosecutors who do nothing but driving-on-revoked and other offenses, there's no way this office can do it," Weirich said. "If I'm a prosecutor, and I'm handling some years 30-40,000 driving-on-revoked cases, the (no proof of insurance violation) law is inconsequential to what we need to focus on, and that's trying to get this offender's license back into compliance."

Records from the Tennessee Department of Safety revealed in 2015, 43,129 Shelby County drivers had their drivers' licenses revoked. 15 percent of them (6,546) were charged with driving without insurance. In 2016, 40,617 Shelby County drivers lost their drivers' licenses for various violations. 22 percent of those (8,769) were driving without insurance.

Yet Weirich admitted to what appears to be a pattern of dismissing most of the cases without prosecution. "We have to triage everything that comes in," she said.

Court records revealed during one Monday in November (Nov. 17), Shelby County prosecutors dismissed 24 drivers charged with no license or insurance, nearly the entire docket of delinquent drivers in Shelby County General Sessions Criminal Court Divisions 11 and 15 that day. One was dismissed despite three previous convictions for driving without a license or insurance. Another was on her third driving-without-a-license charge in two months. Prosecutors summarily dismissed each one of her charges without explanation, according to the records.

Judge Loyce Lambert Ryan of Division 15 said it is the prosecutors' discretion to dismiss all or some of these cases. "I will state that the majority of our dockets are vehicle operation cases," Ryan said. "Each division handles these cases as deemed appropriate. Various reasons can exist as to why these cases are (not prosecuted) by the state and is within its discretion."

"If I'm dealing with a docket with thousands of cases on it, and I've got somebody with their fourteenth aggravated burglary and someone with their fourteenth violation of (no proof of insurance), I'm going to focus on that aggravated burglar," said Weirich. "I'm going to focus on that crime with a victim."

"Clifton was a victim," said Larissa Redmond of Cordova, Tennessee. In 2012, a distracted, texting driver with neither a valid license nor insurance ran the light at a South Memphis intersection and smashed into the vehicle of Redmond's fiance Clifton Gibbs, 23. The crash killed him instantly. Her loss prompted Redmond to start the Collegiate Life Investment Foundation (C.L.I.F), a foundation to raise students' awareness of the dangers of distracted driving and driving without a license or insurance.

"If you're not responsible enough to get insurance (or a driver's license), you should be assumed too irresponsible to drive," Redmond said. "So car crash crimes aren't with victims? I would ask (Weirich) and her district attorneys how many homicides or aggravated burglaries or any kind of violent crimes equal one life for a car crash victim?  I was taught that a life is a life."

"Driving-on-revoked is a problem. It's a huge problem in this community," Weirich said. "But there are those offenders who are going to continue to drive in this community, and when they're caught, when they're arrested, we do the best we can with the resources we have to get the best result from that case. But we can't force people to plead guilty."

January 1, the Tennessee Department of Revenue will launch a statewide electronic insurance verification system that will track uninsured drivers through their vehicle registrations. Drivers whose registrations cannot confirm coverage will face penalties up to suspension of their registrations. Compulsory liability insurance coverage on vehicles has been the law in Tennessee since 1977. “Tennessee already has a financial responsibility law that applies to Tennessee drivers,” Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said. “The goal of this new system is to efficiently and effectively check compliance in order to reduce the number of motorists who lack insurance or another form of financial responsibility.”

Chief Consumer Investigator Andy Wise will dig into the details of the system on WMC Action News 5 at 10.

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