MARIETTA, GA — A high school senior is facing felony charges after police searched his car in the parking lot of his school and found a tackle box with some fishing knives in it. The young man could now be sent to prison for 10 years if convicted.
Cody Chitwood, age 17, was pulled out of class at Lassiter High School on September 17th, and told, “You’re going to be in a lot of trouble,” by police and school administrators.
Outside the building, the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department had been combing the parking lot with dogs looking for reasons to arrest students. Performing random sniff-searches of the vehicles in the lot, one police K9 made a signal on Chitwood’s car.
The dog had smelled a firecracker that had been left over from “Independence” Day, two months earlier. Regardless that it is not criminal to have a firecracker laying under your seat, this sniff gave police the excuse they needed to perform an exhaustive search of his personal vehicle.
As deputies rummaged through his property, they found some fishing gear and a tackle box. In it they found — what else — basic tools for fishing, including a fillet knife and a few other utility knives that serve all sorts of useful purposes to a country boy in Georgia. A total of 4 knives were taken from his car.
Police now had the chance to make the arrest they so desperately sought. As they walked around on school property, armed to the teeth and immune to the state’s asinine hoplophobic laws, they took the opportunity to ruin some kid’s life with a felony for keeping knives locked in his own personal vehicle.
“It’s pretty ridiculous,” Chitwood told The Marietta Daily Journal. “I have an attorney and I’m hoping to get the felony dropped so I can still get in the Air Force.”
Chitwood was charged with Carrying a Weapon in a School Safety Zone, a Georgia law that criminalizes possessing a whole variety of inanimate objects near a school, even if they are locked in your own car. If the district attorney goes forward with the felony charges, Chitwood could face up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
A pattern of punishment
Cobb County Sheriff’s Department performs the random K-9 searches of student parking lots at least once or twice a year at all high schools in the county. Just two weeks before nabbing Cody Chitwood, Cobb County Sheriff’s deputies nailed another high school student in a nearly identical scenario.
On September 5th, an senior at another high school in the same county was subjected to a parking lot search. This time it was not based on a dog sniff, it was based on an anonymous tip. Andrew Williams of Allatoona High School was pulled from class because one of his fellow students anonymously reported that he blew smoke out his car window, and that student thought it smelled like marijuana.
The tip was all the reason that school authorities had to perform the search. Williams did not give them permission and there was no warrant to perform the search. School administrators cited the school handbook as their warrant.
But rather than finding the forbidden plants that he was looking for, Assistant Principal Sam Sanford found a pocket knife in the vehicle’s center console. A pocket knife that could potentially ruin Williams’ life. Sanford promptly called the Sheriff’s Department to have the student arrested.
Williams was charged the same as Chitwood: “Carrying weapons within a school safety zone” carrying a maximum of 10 years in prison.
The teen’s parents knew and approved of his own owning the pocket knife. It turned out that he had a good reason for owning it, not that he should have needed one.
“His grandparents have one exactly like it they keep in their glove box,” said Andy Williams, the student’s father. “It’s got a hooked edge so you can put that on the seatbelt and run it across the seatbelt to cut it off. I look at it as a rescue tool. It just never crossed our minds that this could result in a felony weapons charge.”
That’s a perfectly legitimate reason to carry a knife; one of many. It turns out that Andrew had a first hand reason to be prepared for the worst. He had himself been involved in a terrible car accident in which he had to drag his friends from a wrecked vehicle out of fear for the gas tank exploding. A knife like that could save precious moments if it were ever necessary to remove a seatbelt from a passenger. And the knife would do no good sitting at home in compliance with a nonsensical state law.
“I’m just flabbergasted. It just blows me away,” Andy Williams said. “I know the state has a zero tolerance law as far as what they consider weapons and evidently that goes to kids’ cars in the parking lot.”
“I think the intent of the law, they don’t want people coming into the school carrying knives and I totally agree with that, but there’s got to be some kind of common sense to that. It’s just whether someone can admit they’re wrong.”
The common sense that should be applied to the law is an abandonment of prosecuting victimless crimes. Possession of an arbitrary plant or item should never be made into a crime. Petty prohibition laws are an injustice unto themselves.