Study shows need for court lawyers

By Ed Brock

A few years ago Shannon Johnson of Jonesboro was in a bit of trouble.

He had been drinking at a friend's birthday party and was arrested on charges of public drunkenness and being a minor in possession of alcohol. But Johnson, now 27, decided to go to court without an attorney.

"I was guilty. There was no use fighting it," Johnson said.

The Supreme Court of Georgia's 26-member Commission on Indigent Defense recently completed a report that shows courts around Georgia are giving suspended jail sentences to indigent defendants without providing free legal representation in violation of the 2002 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in "Alabama v. Shelton." And the report also shows that those people are not being made aware of the risks of not having an attorney.

"It is important that defendants fully understand the possible collateral consequences of a conviction of even a seemingly minor offense, consequences that might well surprise a person who has not been advised by a lawyer," the report states.

Clayton County was one of 19 counties involved in the study by The Spangenberg Group that formed the basis of the commission's report. There are a lot of people like Johnson who are processed through the county's Traffic Court and State Court who don't have attorneys, Clayton County Solicitor General Keith Martin said.

"But they waive that right to an attorney," Martin said.

In their report the commission also raises concerns about erroneous attempts by some courts to obtain that waiver and they recommend steps to assure that State and Magistrate Courts consistently follow the Uniform Court Rules.

All that is done in Clayton County, Martin said. His office has only had one case thrown out because of a failure to apply the Uniform Court Rules and that was because the Supreme Court changed the rules.

"We go through everything meticulously and thoroughly," Martin said.

Defendants are given at least two opportunities to hear the risks they take without an attorney. When they enter their "guilty" or "not guilty" plea they are given a form that spells out their rights, including the risk of waiving the right to counsel. The "Waiver of Counsel" form also gives detailed warnings on the consequences of going to court without an attorney.

Not all counties have the same attitude, Martin said. Some just depend on retrials to "cure their errors."

"Our position is, do it right the first time," Martin said.

But the fact that people often choose to waive their right to an attorney isn't necessarily bad, Martin said.

"Does the county want to pay $300 for an attorney to walk in here and get the same result?" Martin said. "(The commission) wants to throw lawyers at public expense at un-wanting and unwilling defendants."

At the same time, Martin said, anybody who walks into a courtroom without an attorney is often "unwise" as well.

Johnson said he did accept the court's offer to consult with an attorney at the court. He followed that advice and received a sentence of one year in probation and mandatory involvement in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

The Commission's report also noted that Georgia's penalties for traffic offenses are apparently the strictest in the nation. First time speeders can be sentenced to up to 12 months in jail while most states consider the violations to be only a civil infraction that is punished by fines only. The commission goes on to recommend that Georgia adopt the same attitude toward traffic offenses and make them civil infractions only.

Martin said that if the state does that they might as well through out the charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.

"The act is the same, the consequences are different," Martin said.

Martin said the possibly fatal consequences of even minor traffic offenses means such offenses should never be treated as just "normal."

"The people who say let's decriminalize this have never been in a neck brace or at a funeral because a loved one was killed by one of these minor offenders," Martin said.

A full copy of the report is available at www.georgiacourts.org under the "Indigent Care" section.