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Sheriff's narcotics unit decision delayed

By Justin Boron

Whether Sheriff-elect Victor Hill will have a narcotics and crime scene investigation unit when he takes office in January may come down to a judge's decision on his official standing, his attorney said.

At a court hearing Tuesday, a visiting senior superior court judge of the Towaliga Circuit delayed any decision about the two Sheriff's Department units until Hill's attorneys had adequate time to respond to a county argument that says Hill does not have sufficient standing to block the transfer.

Jack Hancock, the attorney representing the Board of Commissioners, argued that Hill's status as Sheriff-elect was no different than a regular citizen, and his protests should have no bearing on the commissioners decision to move the two units since they control the funding for the Sheriff's department.

The issue initially sparked contention Tuesday when the county commission was set to act on the units' transfer to county police supervision just hours before Hill was officially elected.

Hill has characterized the commission's actions as an attempt at narrowing his authority before he takes office.

Thursday he sat with his hands folded in front of his face while his attorneys Zenobia Carter and Morris Fair argued that his standing as Sheriff-elect was strong enough to restrain the county commission from acting until a court can rule on the matter.

Senior Superior Court Judge E. Byron Smith entered the courtroom without any knowledge of the case and took the early part of the proceeding to catch up on the past three days, in which a temporary restraining order blocked the county commission from acting on the proposed transfer.

The item was deleted from the agenda Tuesday night, but Hancock said the commission only did it out "deference to Clayton County Superior Court Judge Albert Collier," who signed the order.

He said the order was void since the county was not properly notified of the hearing at which Collier signed the order.

Most of Thursday's hearing was held behind closed doors after Smith adjourned to speak with both parties in judge's chambers.

Hill's attorney, Carter, described the atmosphere in Smith's quarters simply as "tension."

"Tempers flared," she said. "But the judge is cool and collected."

In the closed-door discussions that lasted almost an hour, the judge advised each party to demonstrate care with public statements about the case.

Carter said it was an informal, voluntary gag order, and there was nothing legally binding her from speaking to reporters.

But she repeatedly warned her client about making any further statements to the press.

Carter said the judge gave her until Tuesday to file a brief responding to the county's argument about Hill's standing.

In the meantime, she said he suggested the two parties remain in communication and attempt to settle the dispute without litigation.

County Police Chief Darrell Partain said the motivation driving the push to transfer narcotics and crime scene investigations is a blend of logistical problems and possible financial indiscretion.

A recent audit of the Drug Enforcement Task Force that found "misdirected funds" led to the resignation of its director, Clarence Cox.

"We thought it would be better to be under (Clayton County Police) management," Partain said.

There also have been cases of mishandled evidence by the Sheriff Department's crime scene investigation unit, he said.

"With two departments, you have miscommunication," Partain said.

Hill n who quit his job at the police department abruptly in September n said the move to transfer the two units is a vindictive attempt at intimidation because he won the election.

Partain said no friction existed between him and Hill.

"The police department is a professional department, and we will act as such," he said.

The hearing drew a large audience of interested citizens and government officials. A faction of newly elected officials, which included House Representative-elect Roberta Abdul-Salaam and District Attorney-elect Jewell Scott, sat behind Hill and his attorneys.

Scott said she attended because the units' transfer could affect her office as well.

She said it would remove three investigator positions from her office and whittle her staff down before she takes over.

The district attorney's office already lost two positions when the county transferred their salaries to calendar clerk positions for the Superior Court.

"I'm am going to be fighting this," she said. "This is just the beginning."

Abdul-Salaam said the issue might come up when she takes her seat in the legislature in 2005.

While the current administration and newly elected officials grapple over the future of the Sheriff's Department, some in the electorate are worried that their vote would be shortchanged by limitations placed on officials like Hill and Scott.

"We elected Mr. Hill as sheriff, as the department is now," said Linda Crawley of Hampton. "If they don't think there is going to be a backlash from the community, the current administration is wrong."