Pastor Jamie Coots insists he wasn't trying to wriggle out of anything or rattle anyone's cage when he drove five snakes through Tennessee. He just wanted to get the serpents to church in Kentucky.
Coots handles snakes as part of worship services at Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro. The five snakes confiscated last month by Tennessee wildlife officials were bought in Alabama for $800 and intended for use at the religious service. Now, in addition to fighting a police citation, Coots wants the state to return the three rattlesnakes and two copperheads he purchased in Eastaboga, Ala., along with the boxes used to transport the venomous creatures.
"They feel they have a right to take them for whatever reason," Coots said.
Coots is due in court in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 25 to face charges of transporting illegal reptiles and transporting the snakes in improper containers. The charges stem from a pair of traffic stops in Knoxville on Jan. 31.
Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers initially stopped Coots on Interstate 40 for having windows with too dark a tint. After being released with a warning, he was stopped again. This time, wildlife officials were called and the snakes were confiscated. The five snakes are being cared for at the Rainforest Adventure Zoo in Sevierville, Tenn.
Assistant District Attorney Samyah Jubran said Tennessee law bars possession and transportation of all poisonous snakes by individuals. There are special exceptions for zoos and circuses that go through a permitting process.
Even with a permit, there are special regulations that spell out how the snakes must be transported. Poisonous reptiles have to be in cloth sacks that are placed in special locked boxes. And the boxes must be prominently labeled "Danger -- Poisonous Snakes" or "Danger -- Poisonous Reptiles," among other requirements.
Coots said he misunderstood Tennessee law, otherwise he wouldn't have tried to pass through Tennessee.
"I was under the impression you had 24 hours to transport through or in and out of Tennessee," Coots said.
Coots says his need for the snakes is Biblical. Chapter 16 of the Gospel According to Mark states, in part: "And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover."
Coots takes that verse at face value.
"We literally believe they want us to take up snakes," Coots told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "We've been serpent handling for the past 20 or 21 years."
Owning certain snakes in Kentucky is legal - within limits. The serpents must be a native species and a person can have no more than five of each variety. In this case, the timber rattlers and copperheads would have qualified under the law, said Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife Resources.
"You cannot get permits for exotic species, ones that are non-native," Marraccini said.
Coots had permits for multiple snakes - northern copperheads, southern copperheads, timber rattlers and cottonmouths - until 2012, when the licenses expired. Coots said he let them lapse after being laid off from his job as a surface coal miner.
Snake handling has led Coots into trouble in recent years. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in 2008 charged Coots with trafficking in snakes. Coots lost his right to get a license for a year, but a family member applied for and received the permits.
Snakes can also be brought into Kentucky, but a separate permit is needed for that.
"That's essentially so we know what's coming into the state," Marraccini said.
Coots buys the snakes from suppliers in South Carolina and Alabama. Getting them may be a challenge in the future.
"If I can find a way around Tennessee, I won't go through there anymore," Coots said. "We're going to have to go pretty quick and get more when a little money comes back in. We need them."
Associated Press reporter Brett Barrouquere reported from Louisville, Ky. Travis Loller reported from Nashville, Tenn.