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Clarkston’s court accused of violating defendants’ rights

Clarkston Mayor Edward “Ted” Terry speaks during a World Refugee Day celebration in Clarkston in June 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)
Clarkston Mayor Edward “Ted” Terry speaks during a World Refugee Day celebration in Clarkston in June 2019. (Alyssa Pointer/alyssa.pointer@ajc.com)

The city of Clarkston prides itself on welcoming refugees and immigrants, but its court system uses unlawful practices that violate the rights of members of that population, an Atlanta civil rights law firm alleged in a warning to the city.

The city imposes illegal jail sentences and fails to provide enough courtroom interpreters, lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights said in a letter sent Friday to Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, city attorney Stephen Quinn and Municipal Court Judge David Will. The Southern Center gave the city until Dec. 13 to come up with plans to bring the court into compliance with the law.

On Monday, Terry said he was glad the Southern Center brought the issues to the city’s attention and vowed to do whatever it takes to fix any problems that may exist.

“We take our role as criminal justice reformers very seriously,” Terry said, noting the city was the first in Georgia to decriminalize marijuana in 2016. “We are going to resolve these issues as soon as possible.”

But Terry expressed frustration that the Southern Center’s letter noted its lawyers had been observing the Municipal Court for more than a year. “I wish they hadn’t waited so long to tell us,” he said. “These issues could have been solved sooner if they had brought it up sooner.”

Quinn, the city attorney, was also critical. The Southern Center “has chosen to attack the city in the media rather than offering to work together with the city to improve the Municipal Court,” he said. “After all, the city of Clarkston shares the ideals and goals that the Southern Center espouses.”

In response, Southern Center lawyer Ebony Brown said: “This is not an attack against the city of Clarkston or any individuals.” As for the letter being shared with the media, she said, “This is a public issue that merits public discussion.”

Ebony Brown, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. (credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)
Ebony Brown, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. (credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)

In their letter, Southern Center lawyers said Clarkston Municipal Court routinely imposes “pay-or-jail sentences” — sending defendants into custody if they can’t pay their fines. Courts have long declared these sentences illegal because they subject indigent defendants to incarceration solely because they live in poverty, the letter said.

What the court should do is determine, prior to sentencing, whether a defendant has a significant financial hardship, the letter said. One way to do this is to give defendants a financial affidavit to fill out and then conduct ability-to-pay determinations on the record in open court.

“The city of Clarkston has an obligation to protect the rights of all its residents, regardless of the size of their bank account or their country of origin,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, the practices … disproportionately affect and penalize Clarkston’s large immigrant population.”

Another illegal practice in the city's court system is its failure to provide adequate interpreters for defendants who can't speak English, the letter alleged. This is particularly problematic because Clarkston has seen an influx of more than 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years and some of them speak limited or no English at all.

Georgia rules require municipal courts to provide interpreters for those who are unable to understand or speak the English language. And in a 2005 ruling, the Georgia Supreme Court said a court abuses its discretion when it appoints interpreters without ensuring they are qualified.

Yet over the past 15 months, the Clarkston Municipal Court has regularly allowed unqualified interpreters to try to help out with the proceedings, the Southern Center said. This included using family members or witnesses in the courtroom to assist with interpretations, the letter said.

Atteeya Hollie, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. (credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)
Atteeya Hollie, a lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. (credit: Southern Center for Human Rights)

This past June, for example, a Nepali man, identified only as “G.M.,” showed up in court for a traffic violation but couldn’t fully comprehend the consequences of pleading guilty, the letter said. Instead of delaying the proceeding to get a qualified interpreter, the judge asked the public defender to help out. Even though the defender determined G.M. needed an interpreter, the court went ahead with the guilty plea and imposed a $153 fine, the letter said.

In the future, the city must provide certified interpreters who are fluent in languages widely spoken in Clarkston, Southern Center lawyer Atteeyah Hollie said. “In court, a small misunderstanding or mistranslation can have life-altering implications,” she said.