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NC5 Investigates: The Ticket Fix

Judges Ignore Get-Tough Law Aimed at Truckers

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If a semi slams into you at 80 miles per hour, you might not survive.

Still, a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered some judges go easy on truckers who end up in court -- because they don't want to hurt the truckers.

And what the judges are doing, it turns out, is against the law.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams discovered its a real problem with real victims.

Every day he's out on the interstate, Metro police officer Foster Hite tries to make truckers pay the price for driving that could turn their big rigs into deadly weapons.

"They're probably hauling 60-80,000 pounds, some of them, and you just can't stop one like you can a car," Hite says.

But every day, Alicia Larkins pays an even higher price for one trucker's negligence.

"When he killed Todd, he killed me that day," Larkins says through tears.

In 2005, a semi slammed into Alicia's husband, Trooper Todd Larkins, along I-40 as he made a traffic stop.

The 31-year-old husband and father never had a chance.

"He took away my best friend," Alicia Larkins says.

"And you must ask yourself, why?" Williams adds.

"I don't know. I ask myself all the time, and I don't know why."

In the trucker's case, Alicia had Mitchell Bowers' official driving record -- a record that included a property damage accident and several speeding violations.

But what she didn't know was that Bowers had been able to keep at least two other speeding tickets off his record -- thanks to a couple of Davidson County judges.

"The man should have never been on the road, should have never been on the road," she says.

In one case, Bowers went to traffic school -- something that police say they've seen lots of bad truck drivers do to keep their records clean and their wheels rolling. (The other ticket was "retired," meaning he didn't even have to go to school to keep it off his record.)

Officer Hite says that's a potential problem.

"You could have one of these big rigs that speeds all over the country and get tickets in half a dozen states in a couple of months and never lose his license and never be in fear of losing his license," the veteran police officer explains.

So, more than a year ago, state lawmakers -- under pressure from the federal government -- put the brakes on the abuse.

They made it illegal for judges to allow those with commercial driver licenses, or CDLs, to keep violations off their records by going to traffic school.

But our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that, Nashville judges have continued to let hundreds of truckers erase driving violations from their records by going to traffic school.

For example, there's the Mississippi trucker that Officer Hite caught racing through downtown traffic.

In fact, James Townsel has gotten out of two speeding tickets in Davidson County since the state law took effect -- one of them clearly marked CDL and "aggressive driver."

Department of Safety officials say some of the truckers that we found who got a break in Davidson County have lengthy histories of traffic violations.

"You sometimes wonder why this guy is still out here," says Tennessee Highway Patrol Capt. Steve Binkley.

"If we ease up on the law and don't apply that law to the fullest, then it allows truck drivers who could be a potential problem to get back out there."

Among those judges most likely to let truckers go to traffic school, we discovered, are General Sessions judges Aaron Holt and Casey Moreland.

A year ago, Moreland told us that he worries about the price that truckers have to pay.

"That's an individual with a driver's license, and that driver license is their livelihood," the judge said.

Alicia Larkins responds, "Well, they took my livelihood away. They took my husband. They took my life away."

And even though the state law came too late to stop the man that killed her husband, she says Nashville's judges need to know they can still save someone else's life.

"Let them eat the ticket. Maybe they'll stop speeding. And if they don't, they can find another job."

Judge Holt says he didn't know that the law applied to Metro tickets.

Now, the judge says he will immediately stop the practice.

Judge Moreland didn't return my phone call, but he was quoted in a court newsletter back when the law took effect.

In it, he states he was just going to proceed as if the law didn't apply.

Asked about the purpose in not allowing commercial drivers to go to traffic school, Moreland was quoted as saying, "I'm lost on that point."

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