Meridian Star

December 29, 2012

Highway Patrol employee appeals federal conviction

JACK ELLIOTT JR., Associated Press
Associated Press

JACKSON — A former Mississippi Highway Patrol worker is appealing his conviction on federal ticket-fixing charges, saying the government has failed to prove how his actions violated federal law.

In documents filed with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, James Smith claims the government offers only a weak link between his alleged actions and the U.S. Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit will hear oral arguments in Smith's appeal Jan. 9 in New Orleans.

Smith, who had worked for the Highway Patrol for 17 years and was director of driver records, was convicted in 2011 of four of seven counts of making or providing false or fraudulent statements to the government.

Smith was sentenced to three years' probation.

Prosecutors said Smith altered three speeding tickets and falsely recorded that a commercial driver had attended a defensive driving school in 2008. However, Smith's attorneys say he was simply fixing errors in the system.

The government said in court documents that the federal law created a system for ensuring the accuracy of driving records of commercial driver's license holders and its implementation by states, including Mississippi. People with commercial driver's licenses can operate tractor-trailers, buses and other large vehicles.

Prosecutors said Smith altered such driving records in a national database shared by all states by reducing excess speeds on tickets, falsely crediting a driver with having attended defensive driving school and falsifying test scores.

"Smith altered key information that is necessary to document the records of commercial drivers whose safety history is critical to others who share the nation's roadways," prosecutors said.

The government said falsifying information in the database "undermines the integrity of the information upon which other state licensing authorities, insurance companies, and employers rely."

But Smith's attorneys challenge whether the allegations against Smith were a violation of federal law.

Smith had argued there were problems with the Highway Patrol computer system that resulted in improperly processed tickets being entered. Smith said his actions were to correct those errors.

"The nature of the information that was allegedly changed by Mr. Smith did not rise to the requisite level of materiality because the requisite, core information was not modified," Smith's attorneys said.

Smith's attorneys said the federal law provides an avenue for the states to monitor individuals holding commercial drivers' licenses in the U.S.

The lawyers said the law does not give the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the database, an "avenue to enforce traffic violations or suspensions."

"Accordingly, any of Mr. Smith's alleged false statements cannot be said to have caused a 'perversion' of the authorized functions of the FMCSA," the attorneys said.