Atlanta court violates poor defendants’ rights, civil rights groups say

September 20, 2016 -  Atlanta - Atlanta Municipal Court.  Downtown Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia.  BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

September 20, 2016 - Atlanta - Atlanta Municipal Court. Downtown Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Two civil rights groups say Atlanta's municipal court routinely violates the rights of poor offenders by sending them to jail for low-level offenses because they don't have the money to pay bond.

In a letter to Mayor Kasim Reed, the Civil Rights Corps and the Southern Center for Human Rights said the court's practices are putting the city in a precarious legal position. Harris County Texas — home to Houston — has spent $5 million on legal fees so far defending it's system, which is identical to Atlanta's, the letter said.

“It’s time to do away with the two-tiered criminal system in Atlanta, in which people of means go free, while those who can’t pay are stuck in jail only because of their poverty,” said Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights.

>>>RELATED: Can’t pay for a lie detector test? For one man that could mean jail

>>>MORE: Private probation companies to pay Georgians forced to take drug tests

A spokesperson for the mayor said Monday in an email Reed is a strong supporter of the Public Defender’s Office.

“The administration takes this letter very seriously and we look forward to thoughtfully reviewing its contents,” the statement said. “We will conduct an internal review, and if we find the claims made in this letter to be meaningful, we will take decisive measures to address them. Our goal is to make sure that everyone who appears in the Atlanta Municipal court has access to competent counsel.”

The six-page letter sent Friday says “money-based pretrial detention systems” nationwide had been successfully challenged in federal courts.

In a federal suit brought in the Southern District of Texas, a judge issued a 193-page ruling in April striking down Harris County’s money bail system. The county is appealing the decision to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We have found that people charged with offenses like ‘pedestrian soliciting rides or business’ and ‘possession of drug-related objects’ are kept in jail cells every night simply because of the City of Atlanta’s policy has required bail that these individuals cannot afford to pay,” the letter said.

“Many people plead guilty immediately just to get out of jail. Others are ‘bound over’ and transferred to the Fulton County Jail where they remain until their charges are disposed of.”

Channel 2's Richard Belcher Reports

The letter does not threaten a lawsuit — it asks only for a conversation — but it includes references to lawsuits brought elsewhere.

In Chicago, the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., wrote in an order in July that bail could be set to ensure defendants appeared in court. But judges must first determine whether the “defendant has the present ability to pay the amount necessary.”

Atlanta’s 10 municipal court judges handle low-level crimes like traffic, drug or city ordinance offenses. Since jury trials are not allowed in that court, the cases of any defendants who want a jury trial are “bound over” to Fulton County State Court, which delays the resolution. Judges also have the prerogative to send other cases to state court as well.

Bonds for various offenses are equal to the fine that's charged if the offender is found guilty, minus some add-on fees. They can range from as little as $24 for not having both hands on the handlebars while riding a bike to more than $500 for traffic offenses. Some of the crimes at issue would be obstruction of traffic, which has a bond of $175 or pedestrian darting into traffic which has a $50 bond. A pedestrian soliciting a ride and an open container charge both have bonds set at $175.

According to records obtained by the Southern Center, last year the cases of 890 people were bound over to Fulton County State Court and those individuals were transferred to the Fulton County Jail, shifting the cost of house them to county taxpayers. Collectively, those defendants were held in the Fulton County Jail for “9,000 days before their cases ended or their bail amounts were reduced.”

Since Oct. 25, The AJC has repeatedly asked the Municipal Court and the city attorney for records concerning the court’s operations but officials have ignored those requests.


>>>SIGN UP FOR OUR NEWSLETTER: Know what’s really going on with crime and public safety in your metro Atlanta community. Get the latest breaking crime news, trial coverage, trends and unsolved cases. Sign up for our AJC newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox.

Bond is not punishment, Geraghty said. 

"Too many courts use money bail to extract fines and surcharges up front, before a person's case is even heard," Geraghty said. "But that's not the way the pre-trial system release is supposed to work. Pre-trial release conditions are there to make sure people come back to court — not to extract money … from presumptively innocent people before an adjudication on their cases."

The civil rights groups also claim some municipal court judges have retaliated against the interim director of the Public Defender’s Office, Rosalie Joy, because she tried to bring attention to these issues. These efforts have resulted in a behind-closed-doors push to replace Joy in what some say is retaliation.

“This presents a serious ethical matter for the lawyers and judges involved in this effort, as well as matter of enormous significance for the public at large,” the letter said.

In March, a lawyer with the Public Defender’s Office filed a petition in Fulton Superior Court alleging that at least one judge was sending cases to state court, and defendants to jail, without giving the accused a chance to ask for bail. The petition was filed on March 13 and dismissed two days later when all nine men were given signature bonds and released.

Some of the men were in jail up to 16 days on charges like darting into traffic, shoplifting, marijuana possession and traffic offenses. State law says anyone arrested must be brought before a judge within 72 hours to ask for bail.

Since that petition was filed, the mayor’s office has posted the job of director of the Public Defender’s Office for Municipal Court and is looking for a permanent replacement for Joy even though only weeks remain in Reed’s term. Joy has been the interim director for seven years, appointed by Reed.

In August, Joy’s lawyer wrote the city, demanding that officials preserve certain records.

“Please have your office or a representative of your office contact me before the director role is filled so we can explore the universe of possibilities available for resolving Ms. Joy’s claims. If I do not hear from your office within ten business days of the date on this letter, we will assume the city is not interested in an early resolution and we will proceed in a different direction.”