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'Justice system failed me'
Woman spent three days in jail for clerical mistake

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

She tried to say she wasn't guilty. She tried to say there must be some mistake.

But there was a warrant for her arrest, so Diana Philippe went to jail. She stood in the Clayton County jail on Saturday night: Under arrest, stripped naked, powerless, voiceless and embarrassed.

She started to cry.

"I felt like I was raped," said Philippe, a 25-year-old nursing student. "I felt like I was nobody. The justice system failed me."

The warrant for Philippe's arrest was, in fact, a mistake.

According to court documents, the 25-year-old single mother was wanted for violating a probation, but another court document shows the probation sentence had been suspended. The warrant said she was also wanted for failing to pay a fine, but court records show she had already paid.

Last August, Philippe was pulled over by a police officer for driving with an expired tag. Two months after her birthday, the sticker on her license plate still read "2006." The officer wrote her a citation for the expired tag and another for improperly displaying the license plate, because the plate wasn't on the back of her white Lexus, but in the rear window.

Philippe, of Jonesboro, fought the second citation, going to court on March 10. Court records show State Court Judge Harold Benefield found Philippe not guilty of improperly displaying her license. She plead guilty to driving on an expired tag and was sentenced to 12 months probation, to be suspended upon payment of a $300 fine.

Philippe paid the fine plus $110 in fees the same day.

"It was $410 with the surcharge," Philippe recalled. "I paid $300 in cash, $110 in debit and I went home. And that was it."

The court clerk gave her receipt number 200805895, and Philippe saved it. The court clerk gave her a copy of the judge's ruling, and she saved that too. She put them in a file and didn't think about it anymore.

Until Saturday night, when she heard a knock on the door.

Philippe's mother was visiting from Orlando, Fla., and her sister Daline was visiting with her daughters. The women were cooking and talking and the girls were running around and playing.

Then there was "a loud, abrupt noise at door," Philippe said.

Four Clayton County Police officers were at the door, during the department's sweep of the Flint River Road and South Pointe Parkway corridor, and they arrested her on an outstanding warrant.

"They just arrested me," she said. "They handcuffed me. They searched me and they put me in the paddy wagon."

One of the officers explained she was being arrested for violating probation and failing to pay a ticket. He showed her the warrant. She tried to find the receipt she'd saved, but the officer told her it wouldn't really matter, because he had to execute the warrant if there was a warrant, and only a judge could revoke it.

The officers, Philippe said, were just doing their jobs, but she didn't know why there was a warrant at all. It had to be a mistake. She wasn't guilty. She wasn't supposed to be under arrest.

Court documents show the warrant was requested by a probation officer on March 26, more than two weeks after Philippe's probation sentence should have been suspended.

Damon Dawson, the area director of Sentinel Offender Services, said the warrant application was filed as a part of the normal, paperwork-laden process of the justice system. The probation officer, Carlie Saint Cyr, saw Philippe's name on a list given to her by sheriff's deputies, saw she didn't show up when she was assigned to show up, and filed a warrant request. Saint Cyr didn't check the court's computer system, which showed the fine had been paid and the probation was dependent on the unpaid fine. It would have been out of the ordinary for Saint Cyr to check the court's records system, according to Dawson, since the applicable paperwork is supposed to be delivered to the probation officers, informing them a sentence has been suspended and a fine has been paid.

"What happened was a failure -- I don't know on whose part -- to have that communicated," Dawson said.

Following procedures, Saint Cyr filled out the appropriate paperwork for a no-show, and sent the warrant request on to the State Court Judge. Judge Benefield signed the warrant, and the county's justice system churned on.

The county police department, looking at the large number of un-served warrants in a high-crime corridor, made 15 arrests during a six-hour sweep.

"I feel like it was a clerk error," Philippe said, "But [the probation office] was pretty nonchalant with what they were doing and you can't be. You're messing with people's lives."

On Monday morning, after more than a full day in jail, Philippe was told she could speak to a judge on Tuesday. Her sister found the receipt and the two women appeared before Benefield at 8 a.m.

Benefield apologized.

"Ma'am," Philippe remembered him saying. "I don't know what's going on. I'm going to order your immediate release."

Court documents show Benefield issued a revocation of probation order, writing "Release defendant and close case" in black pen and signing his name.

About 12 hours later -- about 70 hours after she was arrested -- Philippe was released from the county jail.

She returned to her Jonesboro home and her 2-year-old daughter, Alanamarie, and she tried to start studying for a math test, required for her nursing degree.

"I have a big test today," Philippe said Wednesday, the day after she was released, "and I can't even focus. I could still be in jail, if my sister didn't come down and help me, or if I didn't keep that receipt."

Her brother, a Florida police officer, thinks she should sue for false arrest, but Philippe said she doesn't want any money. She just wants an apology, she said, and wants to be secure again, to know this couldn't happen again.

"Now I'm paranoid," she said. "No matter what I do they can arrest me. I don't know if I want to live in Georgia anymore. I was helpless. My voice was not heard and I was helpless and it didn't matter that it was a mistake, like, regardless, I was still the criminal.

"Everybody in jail is not always guilty," she said.