DeKalb County, Georgia Accused of Raising Money by Prosecuting Violations Outside its Jurisdiction
A county just outside Atlanta has been accused of making money off violations that are outside its jurisdiction.
DeKalb County enforces violations of local ordinances through its Recorder’s Court (DCRC). But starting a few years ago, plaintiffs say, officials began using the court to prosecute individuals who had broken state laws, even though the Recorder’s Court lacks the legal authority to do so.
The county is now being sued in a class-action case claiming the court was used to bolster local revenues as part of a “scheme to generate revenue for a cash-strapped local government.”
The county began pushing cases through Recorder’s Court after DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis took office in 2009. “Ellis and other county officials began searching desperately for untapped sources of revenue,” the complaint says. “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.”
The plaintiffs say county officials were aware of the problem. “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,” according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say the expanded use of the court allowed the county to reap “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.” Two of the private companies involved were Judicial Correction Services (JCS) and Integrity Integration Services, which are also named in the suit.
One way district attorneys could do this was by using a state law allowing prosecutors to establish a pre-trial diversion program to charge offenders up to $1,000 in exchange for dropped charges, Courthouse News Service reported.
One DCRC judge, Angela Brown, had 300 probationers before her on a docket that the DCRC mockingly titled, ‘Animal Control,’” the lawsuit states. In addition, according to the suit, Brown “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.”
The lawsuit says prosecutors “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.”
Ellis was sentenced earlier this month to 18 months in prison on unrelated corruption charges.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley
To Learn More:
Class Says Georgia Court Gamed System for Profit (by Aimee Sachs, Courthouse News Service)
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