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VOL. 122 | NO. 198 | Thursday, October 18, 2007

Group Seeks Attorneys To Teach Drivers About Avoiding Traffic Court

By Rosalind Guy

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DRIVING UNDER THIS INFLUENCE: Public Defender David Bell is looking for attorneys to volunteer for a Memphis City Schools program called "To Keep Your License, Know the Law," which he created. -- Illustration By Philip Thompson

When David Bell first joined the Shelby County Public Defender's Office four years ago, one of the things that struck him most about his caseload was that more than half of the cases involved some kind of driving offense.

"I was working (in General Sessions Court) and I started to notice that a whole lot of the cases - at least 50 percent of the cases we had - were 'driving while license revoked' cases or in some way had something to do with driving," he said.

One particular case involved a client who was facing 11 months and 29 days in jail for driving on a suspended license. Bell said his first thought when he saw that was, "How in the world can they want this guy to spend 11 months and 29 days in jail for driving on a suspended license?"

Bell found out, however, that the client had 27 prior convictions for which he served some jail time.

That's when Bell decided there had to be a way to get to people before they found themselves caught up in the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

With the blessing of his supervisors, Bell created "To Keep Your License, Know the Law," an outreach program through Memphis City Schools.

Be all that you can be

Bell and Nigel Lewis, another attorney in the public defender's office, currently are recruiting attorneys to participate in the program.

Driver's education is an elective 12-week course offered to students 15 years old and older each semester at select city schools. The volunteer attorneys usually speak at 12 to 15 schools in the fall and then again in the spring.

On a day when the driver's education instructor has confirmed the students will remain inside for instruction, one of the attorneys will visit the school and talk to students about driving offenses such as DUI (driving under the influence), driving on a suspended/revoked license and leaving the scene of an accident. Attorneys teach either two or three hours a day per semester from a script Bell devised.

But he said the public defender's office is known more for dealing with major cases such as murders, rapes, assaults and aggravated robberies than driving offenses.

"Those are the big, violent and important crimes that people always want to talk about on the news and everything like that," he said. "So, driving with a suspended license isn't sexy, it's not something that's exciting. But I think it's crucial."

At the very least, most jobs require applicants to have valid driver's licenses, he said.

Learning the system

City Court Clerk Thomas Long, who has launched a number of programs since taking office targeting young people having trouble paying traffic fines, said he definitely can see the merits of a system such as the one Bell created.

"The program is definitely a very important one," he said. "There's no question that the program is really needed. When the students go through (a) driver education course, they learn how to operate an automobile, but the missing piece would be the court system."

Long said it should be a requirement in the school system to have children visit 201 Poplar Ave. and find out what really takes place before they end up there.

The "Know the Law" course attorneys are teaching the driver's education students is definitely a step in the right direction, he added.

"For most young people, their first encounter with the legal system is due to a driving offense, either speeding or other parking violations," Long said. "And, unfortunately, most of the young people don't realize that they either have two options, that they can either pay the ticket or come to court. This doesn't disappear."

Bell said one of the things the attorneys try to get across to the young student drivers is that driving a car is a privilege, not a right. And it's one they must be careful with.

"It doesn't say in the Constitution of either Tennessee or the United States you have the right to drive; that's not one of the amendments," Bell said. "You (do) have a right to be treated equally; if you want to go out and take the test, you can get a driver's license, but you're also going to be treated equally when it comes to paying your tickets, not paying your tickets and getting your license suspended."

Growing need

Bell said a solid base of attorneys is volunteering to take part in the program, about 50 percent public defenders and 50 percent private-practice attorneys. And he said that every attorney who has gone out and spoken to the students has called him and told him they'd love to do it again.

If he can build a solid program for the Memphis City Schools, Bell said he'd eventually like to work with the Shelby County Schools on a similar program.

"We haven't had enough attorneys yet to do that, and we haven't had a contact over there," he said. "But I think once we feel solid enough with our number of attorneys and all the Memphis City Schools are covered, if we can get enough attorneys, then that's an area I'd like to expand into next."

For more information about volunteering for the "To Keep Your License, Know The Law" program, call Bell at 545-5854 or Lewis at 545-3960.

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