Procedural flaw threatens to dismiss Sullivan County DUI cases

At least 100 DUI cases are at risk of being dismissed after a flawed system went under the radar in Sullivan County for more than two decades.

What it comes down to is failing to follow procedure, spelled out in state law, when an officer presents evidence for probable cause of an arrest.

News Channel 11’s Kylie McGivern sat down with the district attorney general and mayor to learn where the county goes from here.

“We started immediately trying to fix the problem,” Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said.

police duiThat’s after Sullivan County officials learned from a judge that there was concern about the after-hour processing of DUI cases.

According to Tennessee’s “Rules of Criminal Procedure,” a magistrate or clerk is supposed to sign an arrest warrant, defined as someone “who is neutral and detached and who is capable of the probably cause determination required.”

The problem is, for the last 20+ years, a notary has instead been the one to sign warrants – employees of either the sheriff’s office or Kingsport Police Department, where the jails are located.

“Do I have a concern? Yes, I have a concern that we haven’t followed procedure technically. Do I have concerns that we’ve had a great miscarriages of justice? No. I don’t know of any instances that’s been brought to my attention, but we always want to comply with the law,” Mayor Venable said.

To remedy the situation, the Sullivan County Commission appointed four magistrates at its last meeting: Eric Senter, John Parker, Jr., Lowell “Butch” Adkins, and Joe Harrison.

Mayor Venable said that will cost about $66,0000 a year.

District Attorney General Barry Staubus said his office is still unclear at this time just how costly of a mistake this really is.

“Of course a court may ultimately determine the procedure used without the magistrate was proper. We’re just going to have to wait and see what they decide. So, as to the effect of that procedure, we don’t know yet,” Staubus said.

Staubus said about 100 cases are in limbo right now – ones that are either awaiting a decision from the appellate court or are pending in criminal court.

“We feel there’s a basis to say that these cases are not in jeopardy. And that’s why they’re up on appeal for the appellate courts to decide what the status of those cases are,” Staubus said.

There is no known time frame of when the appellate court will make a decision.

The four new magistrates will start September 1st. In the meantime, judges are on call to sign warrants after hours.

Copyright WJHL 2015. All rights reserved.

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