Code violation charges against city doctor dismissed

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   An Elizabethton physician cited into City Court for failure to abate a nuisance had charges against him dismissed Monday by Judge Louis Merryman.
   Doctor Joe May was issued a citation by Capt. Tom Bowers, Elizabethton's code enforcement officer, after he failed to remove a "milk truck" from his property on West G St.
   Capt. Bowers went to 1427 West G St. on Sept. 19 to inspect "an old yellow refrigeration truck" which had been at the location for several months. The officer placed a notice of violation on the windshield of the truck advising the owner that he was in violation of city ordinance and that he had 10 days to correct the problem. The tags on the truck expired in 1989 and the registration was no longer on file, according to the officer.
   Capt. Bowers reinspected the area Oct. 9 and found the vehicle still at the same location and in the same condition as before. Since no action had taken place, the officer called for a wrecker and had the vehicle towed to the city impound lot.
   He later went to the office of Dr. Joe May and advised him that the vehicle had been towed and that he was in violation of city code. May was issued a citation to appear in City Court on Oct. 15 to answer the charge.
   According to Capt. Bowers' report, May became abusive and began cursing, complaining to the officer that he pays excessive taxes and does not get appropriate services in return.
   According to the report, May told the officer, "Things like this make me understand why people like Timothy McVey do the things they do," referring to the Oklahoma City bombing incident.
   When the case was called up Monday, May reportedly asked the judge to "level the playing field" by having Capt. Bowers take off his gun, saying he felt "extremely uncomfortable with me being armed," Bowers said.
   "The judge tried to assure him that he didn't have to be afraid of me being armed. He said, 'I really insist and would feel better about it.'
   "The judge looked at me, shaking his head up and down, and said, 'Yes, I'm sure Capt. Bowers wouldn't mind ...'
   "Before he could finish, I interrupted him and said, 'Sorry, Your Honor. I'm obligated by state statute to wear a firearm.' "
   Bowers said Dr. May told the judge that Capt. Bowers had made inflammatory comments and he didn't think the officer should be armed.
   "I said if you really want to level the playing field, I don't have access to any biological or chemical agents, and I know I don't have a bomb in my car, (i.e. Mr. McVey)," Bowers said.
   Dr. May also argued that the vehicle in question was not a truck, but a "refrigeration unit."
   "Of course, he's highly educated and if he says it's not a truck, who am I to quibble with it?" Bowers said.
   The charges were dismissed after the judge ruled that the officer couldn't prove the vehicle was a nuisance.
   "The judge said, 'Just you calling it a nuisance does not make it a nuisance," Bowers said. Judge Merryman then asked the officer to explain why it was a nuisance.
   "I named off several things: No. 1, it's just plain old unattractive. I said, 'He told you right out of his own mouth that it hasn't been tagged in 11 years. If you don't put a tag on one in 11 years and don't bother to register it, it seems to me like it's abandoned.'
   "He told you right out of his own mouth that he hadn't used it to store apples in or it hadn't even been started in at least six years," Bowers told the judge.
   "I said, 'It's dangerous; children could get up in it and hurt themselves. It could be a nesting place for vermin and insects of all types. It contributes to urban blight. It may encourage people of surrounding property to junk theirs up. It also devaluates the property and devaluates the property of people around it," Bowers argued.
   Judge Merryman then asked the officer whether any children had been hurt, so far, from being in the vehicle.
   "I said, 'Not as far as I know. But do you want me to wait until there is before I do anything about it?' "
   The judge said he didn't believe Bowers had proved the vehicle was a nuisance.
   Asked whether anyone else can leave an untagged vehicle sitting on their property in the city, Capt. Bowers said, "I guess it depends on their socioeconomic standing, I don't know.
   "City code states that it has to be tagged, it has to be street worthy, it can't be partially dismantled -- everything that this one isn't, is what they're supposed to be," Bowers said.
  The vehicle presently is in the city impound lot where it will remain until Dr. May either pays to retrieve it or produces a court order to release it.
   "This may not be the end of it," Bowers said. "Had Dr. May been found guilty, he had the right to appeal it to Chancery Court and the same is true for the city. We're considering it."
   Capt. Bowers said two similar code violation cases were heard Monday after Dr. May's case was dismissed, and the officer, in turn, moved for the dismissal of those cases.
   "One was pretty much similar circumstances. I had a vehicle towed from a lady's property up in 'Little Tijuana' -- South Sycamore. She had a pretty junky place, too. She didn't comply within the time limit and I cited her in," Bowers said.
   "When the judge called her up, I showed him the photograph (of her property) and he looked at it and said, 'Oh this definitely looks like a rat's nest here.' He asked her how she pled.
   "She said, 'Well, I don't know ...'
   "I butted in and said, 'If you'll take my advice, you'll plead not guilty.' The judge kind of looked at me, and she did too. And she said, 'Well, I guess I'm not guilty.'
   "Then I said, 'The city moves that this case be dismissed.' " The judge dismissed the charges.
   "The next guy that came up was a minority -- and a similar situation. I showed the judge the photographs and you could tell the judge was going to drop the hammer," Capt. Bowers said.
   When the man was asked by the judge how he was going to plead, "He said, 'I used to work for the city and when I did, they used to pick up things like this,' " Bowers recounted.
   "I said, 'That being the case, Your Honor, the city moves to dismiss it,' which he did," Bowers said.
   "I'm a little bit concerned about selective enforcement. I'm not going to get somebody that works for minimum wage and is trying as hard as he can to make a living -- make ends meet -- just because he's a little junked up and having a hard time getting the time to clean it up.
   "I'm not going to be strict on him and at the same time, somebody that's a little bit more affluent, let them slide even though they're in flagrant violation," Bowers said.
   "We have to be consistent. Of course, I've been around long enough, too, to know how the game is played. ... Just because O.J. Simpson wasn't found guilty doesn't mean that he wasn't guilty," Bowers said.
   Asked whether the statement about Timothy McVey -- which May later denied making -- concerned him, Capt. Bowers said, "Yes it does. ... It's been my observation that if somebody blurts something out in a moment of anger, he's been thinking about it for awhile; and if somebody's been thinking about something for awhile, it's a very short step to actually doing that thing," he said.