Hundreds held too long at Fulton County jail may join federal lawsuit

Fulton County jail. AJC FILE PHOTO
Fulton County jail. AJC FILE PHOTO

Sterling Palmer played big-time college football at Florida State University and professionally for the Washington Redskins, but it was a misdemeanor arrest in Fulton County that he says could have killed him.

Palmer was sent to the county jail in November 2014 on a misdemeanor battery charge after he says he stepped in to stop a man from attacking a woman in a Phipps Plaza parking lot. He was issued a signature bond the day of his arrest and should have been released, but instead spent three more days behind bars.

“It’s incompetence running rampant,” said Palmer, 47, who had recently had his kidney removed while he was being treated for cancer. He missed several days of medication while he was jailed and had to reschedule a chemotherapy appointment.

“They virtually played with my life,” he said.

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That November, Palmer and hundreds of others had their civil rights violated when they were held in jail for more than 24 hours after they should have been let go, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Atlanta that was approved for class action status this month.

The unlawful detainment resulted from a Fulton County policy that says deputies must look up inmates and detainees in a state crime database before they are released — even though there is no state or federal law requiring the check, the lawsuit claims.

When the database was down for several days in 2014, the sheriff’s office waited for the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC) system to get back online before letting people out of jail. As a result, detainees languished for a day or more after they had met legal requirements to go free, the lawsuit claims.

A judge earlier this month said Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson and his chief jailer, Mark Adger, are liable if they “adopted an unconstitutional policy that caused the overdetention.”

The GCIC system “unfortunately” has a history of outages that can sometimes last for days, U.S. District Court Michael L. Brown wrote in the Nov. 15 order. In the order, Brown said Adger did not waive the county policy for GCIC checks when the system was down.

“A jail supervisor may not knowingly detain someone past the point at which he or she knows the person is eligible for release,” Brown wrote.

At the time, the county had been under a consent order that began in 2006 and required people be released from jail within 24 hours of their being eligible for discharge. That consent order was lifted in April 2015.

Mark Begnaud, one of the attorneys who brought the current case, said the 2014 episode is part of a well-documented history of the sheriff’s office failing to release people from jail in a timely fashion. There have been at least three related class-action lawsuits over the years, he said.

“It’s a mass civil rights violation,” he said. “There’s a level of indifference shown by people in power. …It’s demonstrative of the way things work at the Fulton County jail.”

Sheriff Jackson’s office would not comment on the allegations in the lawsuit. His spokesperson, Tracy Flanagan, referred questions to the Fulton County attorney. Jessica Corbitt, a spokesperson for the county attorney, said she would not comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit class covers people who were held in jail for more than 24 hours after they should have been released during an outage that began on Nov. 14, 2014 and lasted for several days. Begnaud said more than 300 people were held for at least 24 hours more than they should have been during that period and could be part of the lawsuit.

The delays altered and damaged inmates’ lives, the lawsuit claims.

Ozzie Thompson, another plaintiff in the case, said he ended up in jail after he was arrested for failure to appear in court on a speeding ticket. He had initially gone to court to dispute the ticket and was told a hearing would be scheduled, but he said he never received notice of the court date.

Thompson, an actor, said he was held in jail for more than 100 hours. He said he lost out on auditions and job opportunities.

“The emotional stress of being locked up for bollocks, it’s hard for me to describe it in words,” Thompson said. “It’s like being kidnapped.”

Thompson said he was trying not to let the stress of the experience overtake his life. But he’s nervous every time he sees a police car.

As for Palmer, the former linebacker and defensive end swore off being a good Samaritan after his experience in the Fulton jail. He said he saw himself as “the guy with the white cape” when he tried to stop the woman “from getting pulverized in a parking lot.” Now, he minds his own business.

“Because I was trying to help somebody, I could have lost my life,” he said. “I could’ve lost my life in there. I don’t help people no more. I don’t care what situation you’re in.”

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