(WBIR - KNOXVILLE) In the Knox County General Sessions Court system, four men notorious for having been arrested thousands of times collectively owe more than $600,000 in fines and court costs.
That's money they'll never pay back. Never.
If the amount were 10 percent of that they couldn't afford it. If it were only 1 percent - $6,000 - the public would never see a dime.
Michael Pierce, Harvey Alley, Donald Street and Aubrey McGill are the four worst offenders when it comes to people who owe the court system money, according to figures given to 10News by Knox County Criminal Court Clerk Mike Hammond's office.
A fifth man, Anthony Joe Mason, also appears on the Clerk's Office's list of worst offenders, but 10News has determined he died in April.
The defendants' bills never go down. They have been growing since the 1980s when the names of many of the five first were typed into the county's computer system.
Judges know the defendants can't pay the fines. Clerks know they can't the fines. Defense attorneys know they can't pay the fines.
On any given week, if you went down to Sessions Court, it's likely you'd see at least one of them - Pierce, Alley, Street or McGill - shuffle into court in their jail-issued jumpers, admit to a disorderly conduct, public intoxication, theft, or shoplifting charge, or some combination thereof, and then be sent on their way.
Just as certain are the odds that they'll be back within a few days or weeks, having picked up new charges issued by Knoxville police or the Knox County Sheriff's Office.
The total bill - more than many Knox Countians will make in a lifetime - doesn't tell the full story. Records indicate judges of late have been waiving the costs after the repeat offenders plead guilty. Otherwise, the amount would be much higher.
Other defendants also owe many, many thousands of dollars. Pierce, Alley, Street and McGill are only the worst offenders, according to the Clerk's Office's calculations.
Hammond, who took office in September, would like to find a way to get rid of the debt and recover at least some money. He said he's working on a plan to write off the debt of the worst offenders, crack down on those who can pay and perhaps convince Sessions Court judges to create a type of community service program where people can work off costs they'll never be able to pay.
Within all of his purview, Sessions Court, Criminal Court and Fourth Circuit Court, Hammond said he faces $159 million in uncollected costs and fees. He said it's not realistic to think his office actually could collect all that money.
It's also clear his office won't be able to collect from poor people like Pierce, Alley, Street, and McGill. They don't work. They often live on the streets. Many suffer from a mental illness.
"It's obvious if you have someone who owes us $172,000 and he's basically homeless - he has no assets and there's really nothing you can go after," Hammond said.
Knox County Sheriff Jimmy "J.J." Jones and then Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols have pushed for several years to create a public safety center where people with serious substance abuse or mental health problems could be diverted for treatment.
Jones has said the Knox County jail system, which he oversees, includes a large portion of people who are mentally ill or have chronic substance abuse problems.
Little except discussion so far has come of their efforts. Numerous meetings have been held. Money to operate such a center remains a major hurdle.
Defense attorneys Mike Whalen and Mark Stephens are skeptical much will actually be done to address chronic offenders such as Pierce, McGill, Street and Alley.
Nothing has been done since Whalen began practicing in the 1990s. Little has been tried and nothing has worked in the 35 years Stephens has been a lawyer, he said.
Whalen said he was surprised there aren't more Knox County defendants with six-figure debts to the court system.
"Let's be honest: $1,200 would be a ridiculous figure for those five people," he said.
In his 35 years of practicing law, said Stephens, the longtime head of the District Public Defender's Office that represents indigent clients, court costs and fees have only gone up.
"We haven't in 35 years figured out that that's really a road to nowhere. It's not getting us where we need to be," he said. "It's unrealistic to think that anybody, anybody is going to pay $120,000 in costs. That's not going to happen."
ONE MAN, HUNDREDS OF ARRESTS
Pierce turned 58 in May. His criminal record dates to at least the early 1980s when he picked up some marijuana charges. His address is listed as 418 N. Broadway, Knox Area Rescue Ministries. It's a place he knows well. He's sometimes been asked to leave there because he became unruly or created a disturbance, records show.
In Knox County, Pierce owes the most of any one person in Sessions Court fees - $174, 669.10, records compiled last week show. He's been in jail since July 6, awaiting a grand jury expected to consider charges against him that include theft, public intoxication and making a false report, according to court records.
Records indicate there are warrants for his arrest in northwest Georgia and in South Carolina. But authorities there won't extradite because the charges are so minor.
Police know him well, and employees at countless Knoxville and Knox County businesses know Pierce well. The cops have picked him up after employees called in desperation because Pierce had yet again been found creating problems at their stores and restaurants.
So far this year he's been arrested a dozen times for public intoxication. Last year police picked him up 57 times somewhere in the county for public intoxication, an average of more than once a week, records show.
Records show in fact that he's been arrested hundreds of times for public intoxication since the 1990s. While reviewing his record, 10News stopped counting at 500.
He typically nets other charges during those arrests, such as shoplifting, disorderly conduct or indecent exposure.
He's known to businesses in the Cedar Bluff area, Northshore Drive, Bearden, Western Heights, the Cumberland Avenue Strip, Fort Sanders, South Knoxville and along Broadway in North Knoxville, records show.
Many, including the Walgreens on the Strip, the Chapman Plaza shopping center, and the Broadway Shopping Center, have put him on trespassing lists, ordering him never to return. But he does.
In 2000, Sessions Court Judge Tony Stansberry ordered him never to enter the doors of any Walgreens in Knoxville. In 2006, Judge Geoff Emery warned him to stay out of all Walgreens stores in Knox County. He comes back, again and again and again, especially to the store on Cumberland Avenue.
His drink of choice appears to be mouthwash. Name brand or generic, it doesn't matter. Pierce drinks a lot of it, records show, so much in fact that he's often in a stupor when the police arrive.
In May 2008, he was charged with breaking into Squire's Liquor Store off Western Avenue. When officers arrived, they found he'd been drinking from a bottle of mouthwash.
Officers found him in August 2010 sleeping outside the Ace Hardware at 5214 Kingston Pike. Nearby they found an unopened bottle of mouthwash. He gave his name as "Charles Manson," and then said his name was "Damon."
In July 2012, he was arrested at Burger King on Northshore after being found lying inebriated in a booth. He told officers he'd drunk a pint of mouthwash
That same month, police found him in the 4000 block of Chapman Highway with a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew that was half filled with mouthwash.
Five months later, he was caught trying to steal a bottle of Listerine from the Walgreens on the Strip, records show.
Many stores through the years have warned Michael Pierce to go away and not come back, for offenses that range from panhandling to shoplifting to creating a disturbance.
He's on no trespassing lists for a Rocky Top Market, Walgreens, the Food City on Kingston Pike in Bearden, the Dollar Tree in South Knoxville, the Kroger in Bearden, and a laundry at 17th Street in Fort Sanders.
He's been warned not to come on the University of Tennessee campus multiple times since at least the mid 2000s. He's been ordered out of the Kroger at Chapman Plaza in South Knoxville multiples times.
Pierce also has been arrested for trespassing at several hospitals - Parkwest Medical Center, the University of Tennessee Medical Center and Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center.
He caused disturbances at UT Medical Center in October 2013 and February 2014. He did the same in March 2014 at Parkwest. Sometimes he says he has a gun or that he's going to kill people. Sometimes he uses the phone to call 911 to report a crime that hasn't occurred, such as rape, just so he can go to jail.
Since the 1990s he's been charged with criminal trespass 105 times.
In May of this year he was charged twice with criminal trespass at the Broadway Shopping Center. The next month, he went to Starbuck's on the Strip. He asked an employee to call an ambulance because he was overdosing on heroin. He wasn't on heroin. He just wanted someone to take him to the hospital. Authorities charged him with making a false report
He sometimes gets so inebriated that he urinates or passes out in front of a public place with his pants down around his ankles.
In July 2007, police charged him with indecent exposure at the McDonald's on Cedar Bluff Road. He was peeing on the side of the building in full view of customers waiting to get their food in the drive-thru window, according to records.
On Aug. 31, 2013, the day of the UT-Austin Peay football game, passersby saw him sprawled in front of old McAlister's Deli on Cumberland, naked from the waist down.
Page after page detail his arrests in the Knox County system.
In September 2013, he was arrested for disorderly conduct on Clinton Highway. An officer saw a blue Nissan almost wreck on the highway near Tillery Road, according to a complaint.
The Nissan stopped and the driver reported that he was "giving a guy a ride when he went crazy in his backseat and threatened to kill everyone and almost made him wreck into other vehicles."
Michael Ray Pierce, the passenger, pleaded guilty to that charge Oct. 1, 2013, and soon picked up many other charges, records show.
FOUR MEN WITH SIMILAR STORIES
Court records reveal similar, if perhaps not as lengthy, rap sheets for the other four men.
Harvey Alley, 50, owes the second most amount of money to the Sessions system at $168,213.20, according to Hammond's figures. In descending order the others are: Donald Eugene Street, age 58, $140,184.20; and Aubrey Thomas McGill, 60, $120,991, according to figures provided by Hammond.
Alley's address in records appears non-existent. Mason's address is shown as the same as Pierce - Knox Area Rescue Ministries.
McGill and Street show addresses in county records of the Volunteer Ministry Center on Broadway.
McGill was in jail as of Monday. Alley and Street were not, according to jail records. Mason died earlier this year.
Unprompted, Whalen asked in an interview with 10News if Alley was among the top five for unpaid costs. The lawyer could guess Alley because he's seen him in court so many times.
He recounts a typical day: "Harvey, do you want to plead guilty today? 'Yes, sir.'
" 'OK, time served, pay your court costs.' "
"If Harvey's gone a week, something's happened to him," Whalen noted.
"That is the portrait of insanity."
Alley has more than 350 public intoxication charges, records show, more than 50 criminal trespass charges at places such as the Food City on Western Avenue, the Pilot gas station on Western Avenue and businesses on the Cumberland Strip, and some 30 charges of disorderly conduct.
He's well known in the Fort Sanders and Mechanicsville areas, records show.
Alley has been charged with shoplifting, theft, vandalism, assault for spitting on police, holding up a sign asking for money at places such as the Campbell Station Road exit ramp and littering. He's often appeared intoxicated when police showed up to arrest him, sometimes with a 40-ounce bottle of Hurricane "Brace for the smooth taste" malt liquor.
If he were still alive, Mason would rank third on the clerk's list with total costs and fees owed of $161,096.50. But Mason died in April at age 60.
Mason's record included at least 23 charges over the years for possession of drug paraphernalia such as a crack pipe, at least 16 public intoxication charges, many as recent as this year, and more than 40 shoplifting charges.
Grocery stores on Broadway have accused him of theft as did the Kohl's off Washington Pike. He previously has been charged with escape from police and felony theft.
In February, he tried to steal $128.96 worth of cosmetics from the Walgreens on Broadway at Coker Avenue, according to records. He'd been warned not to go back there ever again, records show.
By early April he was dead, according to an obituary in the News Sentinel.
On Thursday, Aug. 6, some four months after his death, court records show, his costs from a March trespassing case were formally abated by Sessions Court Judge Patricia Hall because of his death.
When police have arrested Street, they've often found him with a can of spray paint, records show. Such was the case in January, when he was arrested on Market Square with silver paint on his hands and mouth, according to records. He likes to huff paint.
Convictions from his criminal record date to the 1980s.
He has been charged some 60 times with public intoxication by inhalant through the years. There also are dozens of public intoxication charges and multiple charges of resisting arrest.
He's been known to throw objects at cars on Magnolia Avenue while intoxicated.
Police have charged him with assaulting someone at the laundry on 17th Street in Fort Sanders after the person declined to give him any money.
He's been arrested for causing problems at World's Fair Park and on the Third Creek bike trail.
Records show his latest arrest was in May for trespassing at the YMCA downtown.
McGill, as of Monday, was being held in jail awaiting prosecution on theft and burglary charges.
He's been charged dozens of times with public intoxication, often just days apart of each other, since at least the 1990s, records show. Police also have charged him with multiple shoplifting charges for stealing items such as a pack of batteries from the Dollar General on Middlebrook Pike and a bag of ice from the Texaco on Cumberland Avenue, according to records.
In 2013, he set fire to wooden pallets in the garage under a small commercial center on 17th Street, according to the charge. The fire sent smoke into Firehouse Subs and Noodles up above.
He frequents the Strip, Fort Sanders and the UT campus, according to records.
McGill was arrested about five times this spring for trespassing at the laundry on 17th Street, a restaurant on White Avenue and at Volunteer Hall, and for disorderly conduct "for taking a bath in the bathroom sink" at the Krystal on the Strip.
In June he was taken into custody for trespassing at Tyson Park after hours.
FINES, FEES, A FLAWED SYSTEM
The current method of assessing costs and fees on defendants, most of whom are poor and can barely pay their own bills, is unrealistic, said Stephens.
"If you tell me I owe $1,500, I'm going to get overwhelmed with that," he said. "And I know realistically I can't come up with that. So I'm not going to pay a penny."
Perhaps a more realistic figure would be to make someone pay $250. That's a figure that might be easier to pay off, as a defendant also balances trying to cover home and food costs, the public defender said.
People living on the edge have very little margin for error. So, for example, they keep driving, even though their license has been suspended or revoked until they can pay their costs.
"If you are trying to make it and you don't have a driver's license, one of the reasons you get arrested over and over and over again is because this system drives you to engage in behavior that is criminal," Stephens said.
New charges mean new court costs, so the debt climbs. Meanwhile, the state Legislature adds new fees. It did that just this year, he said.
"This is an issue where we think this is a gold mine and we can continue to fund the system by court costs, but as we're obviously seeing here, that's not the way it works."
Whalen agreed. It's a fallacy to think the people who are charged in the system, especially those charged with expensive but minor crimes such as public intoxication and disorderly conduct, can pay to make the system work, he said.
"The most egregious cases are usually driver's licenses," he said. "I have had people who have had no education, who have never had $100 in their pocket at one time who owe $20,000 and $30,000 in order to get their driving privileges reinstated. It's never, ever, ever going to happen."
Hammond said he recognizes that the current structure doesn't take into account people who simply cannot pay what they owe, or have amassed so much in costs and fees that they'll never be able to pay.
"So we're working now on a plan on how we can better address that, because I know that for these people to continue to come into court week after week and month after month for years, it just takes up a lot of court time, and every case that comes into court has to have paperwork," the clerk said.
There are ways to fix the problem, Whalen and Stephens said.
"We should value the criminal justice system more than we do, and we shouldn't worry about whether it's a profit-generating enterprise," Stephens said. "It's the system whereby our constitutional rights are protected. It's sacred and we shouldn't worry about whether it 's profitable or not profitable. And to the extent that we can recoup some of the costs associated with it - OK - so long as that's done fairly and done reasonably in a way that people can actually see the light at the end of the tunnel."