Class Says Georgia Court Gamed System for Profit

     (CN) – DeKalb County, Ga. made millions of dollars by unlawfully convicting citizens of state law violations outside an ordinance court’s jurisdiction, a class claims.
     The 34-page class action lawsuit, filed in the Northern Georgia district court, outlines an alleged “scheme to generate revenue for a cash-strapped local government” involving the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court.
     The DCRC was created to resolve county ordinance violations only, not state law violations, but it was wrongly used to make the county money, according to the lawsuit.
     Payments of unlawful fines were allegedly made through Judicial Correction Services and Integrity Integration Services, which are both listed as defendants along with DeKalb County.
     “DeKalb policy makers knew, at least as early as 2011, that the DCRC was usurping authority that it was not given under state law, but they took no action to correct the problem and instead attempted to paper it over by falsely declaring the DCRC to be a ‘municipal court,’ which it is not and never has been,” the complaint states.
     “DeKalb perpetrated this falsehood so that its district attorneys could prosecute state law violations in recorder’s court and so that the county could keep receiving money it knew it was not entitled to keep – namely, tens of millions of dollars per year in unauthorized fees and fines that were being collected on state law citations by DCRC and its private probation services.”
     Georgia state law allows prosecutors to establish a pre-trial diversion program, which charges offenders up to $1,000 in exchange for dropped charges. The lawsuit alleges prosecutors in the DCRC “referred as many accused persons as possible to this program under threat of a state law charge and penalty, in order to generate tens of millions of dollars in revenue for DeKalb County.”
     The Georgia Prosecuting Attorney’s Council recognized the recorder’s court was not a municipal court and advised county leaders that it did not have jurisdiction to prosecute state law offenses, which fell on deaf ears, the complaint states.
     The county made clear that it intended to have the recorder’s court generate $20 million in revenue per year and “was unwilling to pull the district attorney’s office out of the DCRC and give up the substantial revenue that the county got from the pretrial diversion program unlawfully operated by district attorney [Robert] James,” according to the lawsuit.
     “DeKalb County’s policy-makers consciously disregarded the limits of DCRC’s subject-matter jurisdiction in the name of revenue. JCS and ISS then collected that revenue on behalf of DeKalb County by threatening people with state law penalties, such as 12-month sentences and license suspensions that DCRC never had the power to impose,” the complaint states. “In the process, defendants deprived thousands of people of property and liberty, under color of state law but without legal authority.”
     The scheme allegedly began when the county faced a $60 million budget shortfall at the time that suspended DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis took office in 2009. Ellis was sentenced to 18 months in prison for corruption convictions on July 8, according to a WXIA report.
     “Ellis and other county officials began searching desperately for untapped sources of revenue,” the complaint states. “They found one such source in the DCRC, which reportedly had a backlog of about $500,000 uncollected traffic citations going back to the late 1990s.”
     Many of those fines had already been paid but were not recorded by DCRC personnel due to computer deficiencies, according to the lawsuit.
     JCS, which was contracted with DeKalb County to help administer the diversion program, charged and collected “supervision fees” on top of the other fines, which were enforced by probation revocation hearings, where the DCRC would “revoke” their probation as punishment for failing to pay fines and fees, the complaint alleges.
     One of the revocation hearings was reportedly documented by Human Rights Watch. DCRC Judge Angela Brown “hauled 300 probationers before the court on a docket that the DCRC mockingly titled, ‘Animal Control,'” the lawsuit states.
     Brown, the complaint claims, “took the JCS representative’s statements at face value without evidence, and then asked the probationer whether they could pay the amount immediately. If they said no, they were immediately and summarily jailed.”
     It wasn’t until late 2014 that DeKalb Superior Court Judge Courtney Johnson rejected the district attorney’s claim that the DCRC was a municipal court, forcing county legislators to move the DCRC’s caseload to the state court, the complaint states.
     The district attorney’s office allegedly responded by pulling all prosecutors out of the DCRC. According to the complaint, the move happened so fast that the DCRC had no prosecutors for two months, resulting in the continuation of hundreds of cases and the suspension of the pretrial diversion program.
     Even after probation sentences were transferred to state court in February, ISS allegedly continued to collect illegal fines and fees at a table set up outside of the courtroom.
     The named plaintiffs are Brandon Brickhouse, Monica Alexander, Adan Munye and Christina Williams, individuals who were all convicted for traffic violations in the DCRC. Williams claims she still makes probation payments to ISS.
     The proposed class includes those who, in recent years, paid fines and fees for DCRC state law violation sentences or in connection with sentences of more than 120 days probation.
     Class members seek the return of money unlawfully taken from them and a court declaration that they don’t need to make probation payments to ISS. The class also seeks punitive damages. It is represented by Troy Hendrick in Decatur, Ga.

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