Johnson City police officer fired after forging signatures on citations

Rain Smith • Sep 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

JOHNSON CITY — The Times-News has learned a 10-year veteran of the Johnson City Police Department has been fired for forging motorists’ signatures on citations.

Twenty-seven citations were in question. A forensic document examiner positively identified at least 14 signatures displaying “significant dissimilarities” to the cited motorists’ handwriting.

Paula Lynn Norris was discharged by Johnson City Police Chief John Lowry in March. She did not appeal the chief’s decision, which was reached after an internal investigation in which Norris, additional officers and cited motorists were interviewed.

According to a letter from Lowry in Norris’ personnel file, placing criminal charges against her was considered.

“The signature on a citation, of course, commits the offender to appear in court on a date certain,” reads the letter from Lowry to Norris. “If that offender fails to appear it results in judicially imposed penalties — typically a suspension of the motorist’s driver’s license.”

On Wednesday, Lowry told the Times-News that no licenses were suspended due to Norris’ actions.

“The allegations against you are serious not only because of the consequences to a private citizen, but because it is a falsification of a record relied on by the municipal judge who in turn is relying on the integrity of a Johnson City police officer,” Lowry’s letter continues. “Moreover, if an officer takes a shortcut to the point of forging an official document, that officer would ultimately be subjected to cross-examination in criminal trials where the officer’s credibility is essential to prosecute criminal cases.”

Norris appeared in a disciplinary hearing before Lowry on March 16, stating she did not forge signatures on citations. She also said, according to Lowry’s letter, that she did not like the officer she was assigned to work with and implied that officer “would have a motive to falsely accuse you in this matter when he reported to his supervisor his concerns.”

That officer’s report triggered a broader internal investigation. Fellow officers and motorists to whom Norris had issued citations were interviewed. The investigation also reviewed traffic stop video and consulted a board-certified forensic document examiner and professor at East Tennessee State University.

According to her personnel files, Norris provided names of officers who would vouch for her innocence. But according to Lowry’s letter, “none of these officers corroborate the statements and representations you made during your disciplinary hearing.”

Norris’ partner first suspected she was forging motorists’ signatures during a traffic stop on June 6, 2008. The officer reported his personal digital assistant (PDA), an electronic device used for filling out citations and reports, had been used by Norris.

Also, Norris’ partner did not observe the cited motorist provide a signature but saw Norris writing on his PDA — an act not required by an officer writing citations.

According to Lowry’s letter, when asked about the driver’s signature, Norris responded, “It had been taken care of.”

The next step of the investigation, according to Norris’ personnel file, was a review of citations she had issued to other motorists. According to Lowry’s letter, “several signatures did not appear to resemble the motorists’ signature when compared to the motorists’ driver’s license signature.”

The internal investigation then had a certified forensic document examiner review 27 citations Norris had issued. The expert concluded 14 of those citations “displayed significant dissimilarities to the person’s known driver’s license signatures.”

Of even more concern, according to Lowry’s letter to Norris, 10 of those 14 signatures “showed high degrees of similarities in the formation of stroke patterns indicating that one individual executed these signatures.”

Personnel files state that “several drivers” issued citations were interviewed during the internal investigation. They were shown the signature on their citations and said it was not their writing.

Lowry also reviewed video from a traffic stop Norris executed on May 11, 2007.

“It appears to me you are writing on your PDA during the course of issuing a citation — something that is unnecessary for the officer to do to issue a citation from PDA,” Lowry writes.

Personnel files say Norris’ sergeant, lieutenant, captain and major were all consulted on results of the internal investigation. Each “understand the importance of integrity within the department,” according to Lowry, and recommended her termination.

Lowry writes that forging motorists’ signatures “inflicts an undeserving loss of credibility for all others who wear the Johnson City Police Department uniform. When this case first came to my attention, the filing of criminal charges against you was considered.”

During her career with the JCPD, Norris was issued a written reprimand only once. According to her personnel file, it involved a vehicle pursuit she initiated on Dec. 16, 2004.

“During the pursuit you failed to properly notify 911 and supervisors of the pursuit, you did not properly communicate your speed and reason for pursuit to your supervisor, and you did not have justification for the pursuit based on guidelines in General Order 500.02.”

The written reprimand noted that failure to follow proper guidelines could have resulted in a civil suit against the city and Norris.

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