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NC5 Investigates: General Sessions Court

Evidence Suggests Others Involved in Ticket Fixing

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David Hopkins, defense attorney David Hopkins, defense attorney
Gale Robinson, General Sessions presiding judge Gale Robinson, General Sessions presiding judge

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The judge who presides over Davidson County's General Sessions Court says he's going to do something about defense attorneys who get to dismiss tickets.

But it comes three years after NewsChannel 5's first ticket-fixing investigation exposed the practice.

And NewsChannel 5 chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered that there's evidence others in the courthouse may also have been involved.

***

If you look for justice in Davidson County's General Sessions Court, you just may find it in the hands of a defense attorney -- a friend of the judge filling in when the elected judge can't make it to court.

"They are appointed by the court to act in the court's absence," said General Sessions presiding judge Gale Robinson.

Even though no one elected these special judges, Robinson said, they're still judges. "They are acting as a General Sessions Court judge, with all the powers of a General Sessions Court judge."

So, last summer, when David Hopkins was hearing criminal cases for an elected judge, the defense attorney started ruling on other cases in the courthouse -- dismissing a total of 42 speeding tickets without so much as a hearing.

Among the drivers: the owner of Zanies comedy club, a sheriff's department officer and a sheriff's administrator. It was the second ticket that had been fixed for the administrator by a special judge in less than a year.

"Would you dismiss 30 or 40 or 50 speeding tickets on a day when you were not in traffic court?" Phil Williams asked Robinson.

"No," the presiding judge answered.

Williams countered, "So how do you think these defense attorneys thought they could get away with it?"

The judge said, "I don't know that any of them think they are getting away with anything."

Who Had Speeding Tickets
Dismissed/Retired by Special Judges?
Click here to read summaries of some tickets
Plus check out the list of the 1,300 drivers

Still, one day, when Robinson turned his gavel over to defense attorney Blake Freeman,  the defense attorney threw out 30 speeding tickets -- even though none of them were scheduled to be heard in Robinson's court.

"If somebody would have walked into Judge Robinson that day, he had authority to do that," Freeman told Williams.

"So you're saying that you essentially have keys to the courthouse whenever you're sitting as special judge?" Williams asked.

"No, I didn't say that," the lawyer insisted. "You said that."

Former prosecutor David Raybin said, "Sure, you have all the powers, but you have all the responsibilities too."

Raybin himself has served as a special judge. But fixing tickets from other dockets, he says, was never part of the job.

"The canons of judicial ethics prohibit a judge from fixing tickets, from acting on cases that are not on his or her docket, and dismissing things for no reason at all," Raybin added.

Robinson said that he "didn't know there was that big of a problem."

But our investigation discovered that out of almost 1,800 speeding tickets dismissed by all Davidson County judges in an 18-month period, more than 1,300 were dismissed by attorneys serving as special judges -- often out of court.

"I don't care if it's one out of 219,000, that's not fair," Robinson added.

As a result, Robinson has now entered an order, preventing tickets from being brought before special judges if they're not in the court where those judges are substituting. (Read the judge's order.)

Still that doesn't answer the question: were these attorneys acting alone?

"A clerk would have to pull those tickets," Robinson acknowledged. "If you sent me in there right now to pull a ticket on anybody, if you give me a name and I go in there and pull it, I couldn't do it -- not my job."

"So if special judges are dismissing 30, 40, 50 tickets a day, surely someone in the clerk's office would have had to know?" Williams asked.

"Somebody would have had to pull the tickets, yes, sir."

The clerk's office says special judges had the power, so they were just following judges' orders.

But listen to how Freeman described how he got the tickets: "Sometimes officers or clerks or something will bring that in to the court."

Raybin called that unacceptable. "You cannot have special judges being a law unto themselves and dismissing things at the request of some clerk."

Robinson said he doesn't know.

"If I had pulled them tickets, I would let you know how I did it. I don't know how they did it," he insisted.

"Should the TBI be brought in to investigate how it happened?" Williams asked.

"That's completely up to TBI. I mean it would be fine with me."

Raybin said, "Certainly, this warrants an investigation to find out why this was done."

Fixing the ticket-fixing problem is important, Raybin said, but it's equally important to send the message that there's a penalty for trying to fix justice.

"You cannot tolerate fixing a murder case, a DUI case or a traffic ticket because then the very integrity of the system is questioned."

Attorney David Hopkins also tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates by phone it wasn't his idea to dismiss all those tickets.

He also says folks in the courthouse brought them to him, and he went along with it.

But he won't say who all is involved.

District Attorney General Torry Johnson says he plans to meet with the circuit court clerk next week to discuss the situation, then decide whether to bring in the TBI for a formal investigation.

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