DeKalb’s traffic court sees changes

Four new judges will start hearing traffic cases in DeKalb’s State Court later this month, the latest step taken to erase the remnants of the county’s troubled Recorders Court.

Judges in Recorders Court came under fire for sending defendants who couldn’t pay fines to jail and for handing down sentences much longer than state law allowed.

Four times in less than a year, lawsuits have been filed. The latest one, brought last month by attorney Marlan Wilbanks, argues that Recorders Court never had authority to hear traffic cases under the state constitution.

Earlier this year, the Georgia Legislature decided to dissolve the Recorders Court and replace it with a traffic division in DeKalb State Court

On August 17, four new judges will take the bench in State Court to start hearing traffic cases.

“There was a lot of work to be done,” said county Solicitor General Sherry Boston. “It’s been like birthing a baby a little bit.”

The new Traffic Division of State Court gets almost 400 new traffic citations a day, an expected 8,300 a month.

Officials hope this next chapter will be enough to repair a system that was dysfunctional and operating illegally for years.

Despite the fixes, however, there are still two proposed class-action lawsuits to be resolved, and that could cost DeKalb taxpayers millions.

“DeKalb County was in the wrong,” said Wilbanks. His federal lawsuit argues the judges in Recorders Court handed down sentences for much more time that they had the authority to give. It says the court used threats of jail along with pressures from private probation services to get money out of violators.

Wilbanks wrote in the suit that the county officials “sent the unmistakable message to the judges of the DCRC — all of whom served at the pleasure of the County Commission — that their job was to generate revenue for the county.”

“DeKalb County had it’s own version of a debtors’ prison. People who (couldn’t) pay (fines) over time were being put in jail,” Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks wants the county to pay back all the fines as well as the fees collected by the two private probation companies Recorders Court used.

Court officials declined to speak about the pending lawsuit.

But court clerk Melanie Wilson said her office is trying to streamline the process of resolving traffic tickets.

Two days a week have been set aside for those who miss court dates to come before a judge and resolve their tickets and avoid losing their licenses.

Drivers can have their cases put off for as long as six weeks if they need time to raise money for their fines without any additional fees.

Private probation companies that once charged drivers $40 a month to supervise them until they paid off their traffic fines have been replaced by a county-run system.

And there are people readily available to take calls from those with questions. Wilson said the call center hears from about 7,660 people each week.

“We’ve got a lot more accessibility now,” said Chief Judge Wayne Purdom.

Wilbanks concedes things are improved when it comes to taking care of traffic tickets in DeKalb. But, he said, that does not discount the lives have been wrecked.

Ultimately, tens of thousands of people could be brought into the lawsuit filed on behalf of those who paid fines or were jailed because they couldn’t pay. Wilbanks said doesn’t know how much it could cost the county if DeKalb loses, but the average fine ordered by Recorders Court judge was $350, plus any supervision fees paid to the private probation companies that worked there.

Many of the people who appeared in Recorders Court also have marks on the driving records.

“We’re not asking for a windfall. We say give the money back and clear their records,” he said.

The Recorders Court issue exploded last year when Decatur attorney Troy Hendrick filed a federal lawsuit saying neither state law nor the Georgia Constitution allowed the district attorney to prosecute misdemeanor cases in Recorders Court.

That suit became moot in November, however, when DeKalb’s DA office suddenly stopped prosecuting traffic cases.

But then the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of a 19-year-old man who was sent to jail because he could not pay an $838 fine. DeKalb paid $70,000 to settle that suit.

And there is yet another federal lawsuit against DeKalb’s Recorders Court pending. The pending case — in addition to the one Wilbanks brought — says the Recorders Court was illegally suspending drivers’ licenses.

Since 1959, the state Constitution has limited the court’s authority to ordinance violations such as animal control, burning leaves and overgrown property. The Georgia Office of Legislative Counsel said in an Dec. 5 opinion the Georgia Constitution said those duties could not be expanded.

District Attorney Robert James, DeKalb’s former solicitor general, continued to provide prosecutors in Recorders Court even after he became district attorney.

And in 2012 the Board of Commissioners passed a resolution stating that the county Recorders Court was to provide “municipal court services including handling state traffic law citations,” and DA was the prosecutor there.

Wilbanks said Recorders Court punishment for violating traffic laws were tough and judges often handed down sentences for much longer than state law allowed.

For example, one of Wilbanks’ clients in the case, Christina Williams, was sentenced to 12 months probation and fined $1,000 for driving on a suspended registration and without insurance.

Adan Munye, whose case also was detailed in the suit, was sentenced to five days in jail along with 12 months probation and fined $600 for driving on a suspended license.

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