(CN) - A class action claims Columbus, Georgia, wrongly charges the victims of domestic violence a fee in lieu of incarceration if they refuse to testify against those who abused them.
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed the federal complaint on behalf of one of those victims, 22-year-old Cleopatra Harrison, on Oct. 5.
"Under the official policy of the Consolidated Government of Columbus, Georgia, women who experience domestic violence are required to aid local law enforcement agencies in prosecuting people accused of violence against them," the complaint states.
"Women who express their lack of interest in doing so are ordered to pay a fee of at least $50 — and often several times that amount — without any consideration of the circumstances of their cases or their reasons for desiring not to prosecute. People ordered to pay these illegal fees are further threatened with summary incarceration if they fail to pay," it continues.
The lawsuit claims Harrison was subjected to the policy after she told the city prosecutor she did not want to testify against her boyfriend, who was charged with assaulting her.
"Without any further inquiry, Defendant Judge Michael Cielinski assessed a $150 'victim assessment' fee against Harrison. Harrison, who is indigent, lacked the funds to immediately pay the fee, so she was given a document warning that an arrest warrant would be summarily issued if she failed to pay within one week," the complaint says.
"Minutes after Harrison was assessed a $150 fee for expressing her wish not to pursue criminal charges, Harrison was shoved against a courthouse wall by Defendant Officer Michael Lincoln, handcuffed, placed in jail, and charged with giving Lincoln unspecified 'fake information; four days earlier," the complaint continues.
"We don't know how long this practice has been going on," Sarah Geraghty, the managing attorney for the Southern Center for Human Rights, told Courthouse News. "Our court watchers observed it happening on a number of occasions in and we have audio tapes documenting the practice."
The organization maintains that under Georgia law the city has no authority to punish victims of domestic violence.
Harrison is suing the city for allegedly violating her rights under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as wrongful imprisonment, malicious prosecution, conversion, and unjust enrichment.
"We've asked for class certification for the purpose of seeking the return of these 'victim fees' for the victims," Geraghty said.
In addition to the city, the other named defendants are Chief Judge of Columbus Recorder's Court Michael Cielinski; Sheriff John Darr, Chief of Police Ricky Boren, and police officer Michael Lincoln.
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