Gwinnett’s unorthodox new solicitor wants to redefine his office’s role

Gwinnett’s new Democratic solicitor general, Brian Whiteside (right), chats with Curtis Clemons at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Friday October 11th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Gwinnett’s new Democratic solicitor general, Brian Whiteside (right), chats with Curtis Clemons at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Friday October 11th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

Brian Whiteside is a different kind of prosecutor.

In August, Gwinnett County's new solicitor general made a public splash by becoming the first prosecutor in Georgia to stop pursuing misdemeanor marijuana cases, a decision made in light of legal complications presented by a new state law.

Whiteside in August took on Wal-Mart, asking the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer to hire its own security guards to reduce crime at the 15 Gwinnett County stores, or he’d take them to court.

And earlier this week, Whiteside's office demanded meetings with the owners of five extended stay motels within a month to address crime, implying the same threat for not responding.

Next, the 61-year-old former police officer and defense attorney wants to go after vape shops, gangs, sex trafficking and gun offenders.

No issue seems too big for Whiteside as he tries to dramatically redefine the role of an office that generally operates in obscurity.

Like every other solicitor’s office in Georgia, Gwinnett County’s is statutorily mandated to prosecute misdemeanor crimes and citations: everything from domestic violence to DUI.

But Whiteside believes his office should be a proactive "first line of defense" against crime. He wants a dramatic budget increase to bolster the size his investigative staff, and to turn his office into more of a law enforcement entity than one that merely prosecutes the cases it's handed.

It would be a seismic shift in strategy for an office that, by law, already has thousands of criminal cases and tens of thousands of citations on its plate each year. The approach raises plenty of questions, not the least of which are financial.

Whiteside is not concerned.

“My father was in Strategic Air Command, and he had one theory in life: attack, attack, attack,” Whiteside said on a recent morning at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center. “You see a problem, you attack it, you eliminate it. You go after that problem to total destruction.”

Raising eyebrows

Whiteside, 61, drives a bright green, late-model sports car. A proud Indiana native, he more often than not wears a Purdue Boilermakers sweater under his suit coat. And he likes to talk — the type of guy you don’t call unless you have half-an-hour to chat, and don’t mind the regular references to World War II.

A Democrat, Whiteside previously mounted unsuccessful runs for Gwinnett County sheriff and clerk of court. In 2018, he rode Gwinnett County's blue wave to electoral victory, ousting three-term incumbent solicitor Rosanna Szabo by nearly 10 points.

He’s raised a few eyebrows since he took office in January.

Whiteside retained some staff from the previous administration but removed many members of the office’s leadership. Several of his new hires are former Gwinnett deputies with whom he used to work.

One assistant solicitor that he brought on, Greg McKeithen, was indicted Wednesday on charges accusing him of continuing his work as a defense attorney after becoming a prosecutor.

Whiteside’s decision to drop misdemeanor marijuana cases triggered a series of events that includes Gwinnett County police officers no longer making arrests for small amounts of pot.

In the two months after Whiteside issued an Aug. 8 memo explaining his position, Gwinnett County Recorder’s Court has charged only one new misdemeanor possession case. More than 200 such cases were charged over the same time period in 2018.

“I think he was concerned about the idea of pursuing cases that he knew as of right now couldn’t be prosecuted,” Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said recently. “But it couldn’t have hurt him to wait.”

Whiteside wants to ramp up investigative efforts, seek harsher sentences for things like gun crimes, and have a larger presence in the community. The goal: stomping out big problems by attacking the small ones that help feed them.

“We want to maintain (Gwinnett’s) excellent reputation,” said Curtis Clemons, a former assistant chief with Gwinnett County police assistant chief who Whiteside recently hired as an investigator. ”We want to keep it that way, and continue to have people come here and enjoy a quality of life that they can’t get anywhere else.”

Gwinnett’s new Democratic solicitor general, Brian Whiteside, takes phone call while leaving the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Friday October 11th, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner)

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‘Not here to play’

Whiteside’s desired approach comes with plenty of potential complications.

There are big picture questions about what a solicitor’s role should actually be, of course. And others about just how far the office’s enforcement powers actually extend.

Money could be the most significant issue.

The solicitor’s office’s budget was $5.7 million this year. Whiteside has asked for an increase of $1.1 million — or nearly 20 percent — for 2020. The new money would be spent in part to hire six new investigators. The office currently has eight.

Gwinnett’s Board of Commissioners will vote on the budget in early January. If his budget requests aren’t granted, Whiteside will face tough questions about how to efficiently allocate resources to his new missions while continuing to handle the thousands of cases his office is mandated to prosecute each year.

Whiteside says he’s undaunted. After all, what would Harry Truman do?

“Most Democrats I knew, like Truman, they dropped the atom bomb,” Whiteside said. “I’m sort of like Harry Truman. I’m not here to play with you.”

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