KNOW THE LAW – View from The Bench: Administrative Office of the Courts Reminds Tennessee Municipal Court Judges to Uphold Public Chapter 441 of 2009

Recently, Tennessee Municipal Court Judges were issued a Memorandum from the Director of the Tennessee Supreme Court Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) reminding them of a change that was made to Tennessee Law in 2009. This change, Public Chapter 441 of 2009, was an amendment to the existing law codified at TCA Sec. 55-12-139. This code section governs motorists’ required compliance with Tennessee Financial Responsibility law. When a motorist is stopped by a Police Officer for a moving violation, the officer is required by state law to ask the motorist for proof that there is automobile liability insurance in effect on the date of the stop. To avoid receiving a ticket for failing to provide such proof, all drivers should keep their proof of automobile liability insurance in their car within ready reach if stopped. And drivers should be sure to remove their expired proof and replace it with updated proof, as they move through their sequential coverage periods with their insurer. If a motorist cannot provide proof of automobile liability insurance coverage at the time of the stop, the Police Officer will write a citation for a violation of TCA Sec. 55-12-139. A violation of this code section is a Class C Misdemeanor, and is punishable in the Spring Hill Municipal Court with a fine of up to $50 with court costs of up to an additional $75.

Prior to 2009, this code section allowed the Municipal Judge to dismiss the charge of a motorist’s failure to provide proof of financial responsibility if the motorist obtained automobile liability insurance after the officer wrote them a citation of this violation, but before they came to Municipal Court for their hearing on this charge. In other words, the Judge had the discretion to permit any offending motorist who did not have insurance at the time of the stop to obtain insurance prior to their Court date, and the Judge could dismiss the ticket if insurance was obtained prior to coming to Court.

No longer so upon the advent of Public Chapter 441, which became effective on July 1, 2009. This amendment to the statute removed the Judge’s discretion to dismiss a charge for violation of TCA Sec. 55-12-139, even though the motorist obtained insurance before coming to Court for the hearing on the charge. In effect, the Legislature adopted a “zero tolerance” stance relative to motorists driving without automobile liability insurance.

I serve on the Legislation Committee of the Tennessee Municipal Judges Conference, and at our December 2010 meeting, I got wind that there is some discomfort among some of the Municipal Judges about the Legislature’s adopting this “zero tolerance” policy toward those who obtain insurance after they were cited by the Police Officer … but before they came to Court for a hearing on their ticket. Perhaps, with the downturn in the economy, some feel that it would be appropriate to grant grace to those who obtain insurance after they’ve been caught without it, but before they come to court for a hearing on the charge. This discussion made me wonder if some Municipal Judges in other cities in our state are opting not to enforce the “zero tolerance” provisions of Public Chapter 441, and are allowing motorists to provide proof of insurance obtained “after the fact” of their stop … but before coming to Court.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) has now formally removed all doubts, issuing a Memorandum on the point to all Municipal Judges in Tennessee. This Memo clarifies that “Public Chapter 441 of 2009 removed the judicial discretion to dismiss [the failure to provide proof of financial responsibility charge] where insurance was obtained subsequent to the citation.” Hence, the AOC has reminded all of the Municipal Court Judges in Tennessee that there is a “zero tolerance” for driving without automobile liability insurance. So, drive smart … be insured … and hopefully I won’t see you in Municipal Court on this charge.

This Week’s Word of Wisdom: “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” Oprah Winfrey

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By Judge Blair Scoville Morgan

Blair S. Morgan is an Attorney, Mediator and Municipal Court Judge in Spring Hill, TN; P. O. Box 88, Spring Hill, TN 37174, (615) 302-8434