'Rocket docket's' dismissal rate raises questions

More than 4 in 10 "rocket docket" cases were dismissed in Fulton County over the final six months of 2010, a rate nearly twice as high as other big cities with similar courts.

The judge who oversees the rocket docket, which expedites low-level felony cases, says dismissals are high because of the low quality of many cases he gets from police and prosecutors. The Fulton County district attorney places blame on the judges for the dismissal rate, arguing judges side with defendants too often when defense attorneys challenge evidence and police searches.

English's case is typical of the cases that are tough to prosecute and become candidates for dismissal.

English, 28, said he was visiting a West Lake shade-tree mechanic about a car he had fixed up for resale. Atlanta narcotics officers raided the house as English was leaving. They found 54 hits of cocaine hidden in its ceiling.

English's lawyer said no drugs were found on him. "I don't want any plea offers," said Renee Rockwell, the attorney representing English. "I don't even want him to plead to disorderly conduct. What if I had been coming out of that house?"

Chief Magistrate Richard Hicks said his rocket docket is loaded with cases like English's. In the last six months of 2010, Hicks dismissed 264 cases  -- about 43 percent of those disposed of -- while taking guilty pleas in 345.

A lighter case load that weeds out weak cases, Hicks argues, would give judges more time to concentrate on the most serious cases. The so-called rocket docket Hicks oversees is expected to handle low-level felonies within nine weeks of arrest. The court became the center of controversy when Georgia State Patrol Trooper Chadwick LeCroy was shot to death in December. The accused gunman had walked out of jail days after being charged with an attempted car break-in because the arresting officer failed to testify in court. In July, the career criminal got 60 days plus probation on a cocaine plea despite being on probation.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard took judges to task for lienient sentencing. Judges say the system is so overcroweded that it's tough to give cases the full attention they deserve.

Defense lawyer Al Dixon, a retired Fulton prosecutor, sides with the judges' view. Dixon blamed Howard's "complaint room" system for sending poor cases forward when a decade ago a municipal court -- which no longer handles criminal cases --would have handled them.

"What happens is the system gets clogged up with a lot of cases that shouldn’t be there and you short change the serious cases that should have been prosecuted fully,” Dixon said. "It puts a strain on the system."

Dixon oversaw felony prosecutions for Howard when the complaint room was established in 2001. It's aim was to ensure full investigations of serious felonies by having prosecutors take control of the case from arrest. It was also supposed to winnow out the poor cases, which had weak or inadmissible evidence. "It hasn't worked out that way," Dixon said. "The complaint room is just a rubber stamp."

Howard called it absurd to claim the complaint room resulted in poor cases. In 2005,  he said the complaint room sent almost 14,000 cases to court. That year he declined to prosecute about 4,700. In 2010 he said it funneled 9,500 cases into court and he declined to prosecute about 2,500.

That showed cases were being better prepared, he said. "I am not buying your erroneous assumption that our police departments are creating marginal cases," Howard said. "It is untrue."

But veteran prosecutors said a 43 percent dismissal rate is disturbingly high, and it raises questions about why those cases still go forward when the Superior Court system is already overloaded.

“I've seen so many cases where there will be five people in the car and cocaine will be found in the console of the car and they will indict everybody. It clogs up the jail. It clogs up the court system," said David Zagoria, a former Fulton prosecutor and now defense lawyer. " If you can weed cases out, it is really better for the entire system.

A 2006 study of court systems in the nation's 75 largest counties, found dismissals in about 23 percent of rocket-docket-type cases but that percentage included cases disposed of by plea at the initial hearing which Hicks' numbers do not. Fulton County is the only metro-Atlanta county with this sort of court, making comparisons with other local courts tough.

Howard contends judges and unelected magistrates like Hicks derail the system either because they don't work hard enough or because they are giving defendants minimal prison time to encourage pleas.

"My office is devoting time to recidivist cases, career criminals and drug dealers," Howard said. "All our hard work is not always reflected in the sentencing in the ‘rocket docket' court."

Wendy Gustaferro, an expert on court systems at Georgia State University, said overloading the rocket docket undermines the ability to press for tougher cases against career criminals. Poorly prepared cases don't have a deterrent effect, she said.

"We might be reinforcing the concept that you can game the system," Gustaferro said. "If we only brought the better low-level cases forward, it would help eliminate that.”

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