Appeals court upholds ticket-fixing conviction

By The Associated Press

JACKSON — A federal appeals court panel has upheld the conviction of a former Mississippi Highway Patrol worker accused of fixing tickets.

James Smith contended the government failed to prove how his actions violated federal law.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday that Smith’s data manipulation undermined the purpose of a national database set up to track commercial drivers’ licenses.

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 key information that is necessary to document the records of commercial drivers whose safety history is critical to others. The government said such information was relied on by other states’ licensing agencies, insurance companies, and employers rely.”

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 does not give the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the database, an “avenue to enforce traffic violations or suspensions.”

However, the 5th Circuit panel said Smith’s actions stymied the government from auditing the database, which prosecutors said was the government means of tracking the safety history of commercial drivers.