Banned No More: Georgia city backs down on lifetime banishment for two

A Georgia city has rescinded its lifetime ban on two people it had labeled nuisances, but a third person is still forbidden to set foot on city-owned property.

Adopted by the city of Statham, the unusual restrictions spurred a pair of federal lawsuits arguing they violated the First Amendment. The cases seemed poised to test the line between a citizen's right to access government and the government's ability to push back when it believes those demands have become excessive.

But on the eve of a preliminary hearing Friday in one of the cases, Sondra Moore of Hoschton, and Tony McDaniel of Statham learned the city had backed down. In a motion filed in U.S. District Court in Gainesville, attorneys representing the Statham police chief, the city attorney and the municipality said Moore and McDaniel were now “free to attend future City Council meetings” and “lawfully be present on any city property.”

“We’re pleased the city of Statham has agreed to lift the bans on our clients so that they are now able to again exercise their fundamental constitutional rights without fear of being arrested again,” Zach Greenamyre, one of the attorneys representing Moore and McDaniel, said in a statement. “The fact that the city has declined to defend the banishment orders in court is a strong sign that the orders were not constitutionally defensible.”

The case of an Atlanta woman, also banned from Statham property, is still pending in federal court. The City Council voted in September to bar Catherine Corkren for life.

Moore and McDaniel had been banned since May from city property in Statham, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month that all three had drawn the ire of city officials as they began scrutinizing city dealings. They filed multiple open records requests and attended City Council meetings and work sessions. Moore began videotaping the meetings.

The effort had its roots in a series of questionable DUI arrests by a Statham police officer. The officer resigned in the midst of the scandal and the DUI charges against many of the accused, including Moore, were dropped. But the episode set off a slew of lawsuits against the city and galvanized a contingent of residents and observers who’d been affected.

Moore and McDaniel were among them and eventually went further and became involved with a group of residents who’ve long had questions and complaints about the city’s water quality. After a tour of the town’s water management district with the mayor in mid-spring, Moore and McDaniel returned to the area, with the mayor’s permission, to further observe. During their second walk, they went into a public town park and tried to take water samples, Moore said. When a Statham police officer told them to leave the park, they left. Within hours they were separately given trespass warnings for being in a public park.

When Moore tried to attend a subsequent City Council meeting, she was charged with trespassing. She and McDaniel were then banned indefinitely by the City Council from all city property. The two filed a civil suit accusing the council of violating their First Amendment rights. That case was scheduled for a hearing last Friday. But hours before it was to move forward, the city lifted the ban.

Statham City Attorney Thomas Mitchell did not return an email seeking comment. In the city’s motion to stop the preliminary hearing, it argued that not only were the restrictions against Moore and McDaniel no longer in place, but that “there exists no reasonable basis on which to conclude that Statham would reinstate or otherwise seek to enforce such trespass warnings against plaintiffs at any point in the future.”

“Now our clients can do what every citizen expects — visit parks, pass out leaflets, talk to government officials, and have access to public spaces,” said Gerry Weber, another attorney for Moore and McDaniel.

Moore said Monday that she is relieved and empowered by the dropping of the ban.

“They dropped it because they didn’t have a case to begin with,” Moore said.

She was planning to attend the Statham City Council meeting on Tuesday with her video camera in tow.

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