A driving under the influence case involving Clayton County Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph was bound over to Fulton County State Court, from Atlanta Municipal Court, on Thursday. The change came after reporters from three news outlets, including the Clayton News Daily, met with a municipal court judge and prosecutors, and pressed them about Ralph’s relationship with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Atlanta police arrested Ralph in February, and charged him with driving under the influence, driving under the influence less safe, reckless driving, failure to maintain a lane, and obstruction of an officer.
An officer witnessed him allegedly swerving back and forth while driving down Metropolitan Parkway. The officer wrote in his report that the commissioner also allegedly had an “overwhelming odor of alcohol” on his breath.
Last year, Ralph and Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott attended an air cargo conference in Amsterdam with Reed, at the mayor’s invitation. According to media reports, Reed was also reportedly set to host a fund-raiser for Ralph’s re-election campaign (the commissioner is up for re-election next year) over the summer, but it was eventually postponed.
On Thursday morning, reporters met with Atlanta Senior Assistant City Solicitor Shemia Francisco, and Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Calvin Graves, and raised questions about the case, and Ralph’s ties to Reed.
“We realized there were ties between the commissioner and the mayor that we did not know about, because the mayor has never called our office about this case,” Francisco said. “So, we met with the judge and determined that no matter what we did, there was always going to be some people out there who believed he was hooked in, when in reality he was not.
“So, to shun any appearance of impropriety, we decided to bind the case over to Fulton County State Court ... where the mayor has no pull.”
The change of court systems means a plea deal that Francisco had offered Ralph –– where he would only have to plead guilty to reckless driving –– is now off the table. She said, with the case moving to Fulton County State Court, it will now be prosecuted by the Fulton County Solicitor’s Office (instead of the city’s solicitor’s office) with all of the charges now back on the table.
Francisco said Judge Graves has approved the transfer of the case to state court.
Ralph’s attorney, David Botts, could not be reached for comment.
Thursday morning, Francisco said Ralph’s punishment likely would have been a fine, 12 months probation, 100 hours of community service, and a DUI risk-reduction course –– if the case had continued in Atlanta Municipal Court, and Ralph had accepted Francisco’s plea offer.
Now, he is looking at the case possibly dragging on into 2012, just as campaigning for county offices kicks into high gear.
Even though the case is moving forward in Fulton County State Court, several questions linger about how it has, thus far, been handled by the city.
Ralph had been scheduled to appear in Atlanta’s Municipal Court Thursday morning, to enter a plea to the charges he is facing. Neither Ralph, nor his attorney, were visibly present in the courtroom, however. That prompted a series of questions from reporters, which lead to revelations about how Atlanta police handled the case.
Graves, who is presiding over the case, said defendants, in general, have to be excused, by a judge, from appearing in court. “Our general policy is defendants are required to show up on their court date, and I have no record of excusing Commissioner Ralph,” the judge said.
Ralph turned up at a Clayton County Police Department open house and flag-raising ceremony, in Jonesboro, on Thursday morning, however.
Francisco, who was, herself, not in the courtroom at the designated hearing time because of car trouble, said hearing dates, and changes to those dates, are communicated between prosecutors and defense attorneys, and that was how it was handled Thursday.
She added that because she was the prosecutor who handled the case, “nothing would have happened if I was not there.”
There are questions about the police handling of the case. Francisco told reporters, and Graves, it took an extended period of time for the Atlanta Police Department to get their evidence in the case to her. She did not specify how long it took the department to turn over its evidence.
An Atlanta Police Department spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Atlanta Police Officer W. J. Hubbard wrote in the police report from Ralph’s arrest, that the commissioner’s red Ford Mustang was allegedly swerving from one side of Metropolitan Parkway, in Atlanta, to the other, and eventually onto a median on the road, during the early morning hours of Feb. 19.
Hubbard wrote in his report that sparks flew from under Ralph’s car when it was riding on the median, and that his speech was slurred and his eyes appeared to be “obviously glassy” with a “blood shot appearance,” after the commissioner was pulled over.
The prosecutor said she discovered several problems with the way police handled Ralph’s arrest, which, she said, resulted in a weakened DUI case. She explained that there was no dashboard video made from the police officer’s cruiser, because it lacked the equipment to record a video.
She added that there were no sobriety tests conducted on Ralph at the time of his arrest, and no evidence (the commissioner had refused to take any), and that officers did not ask him questions, such as, “Have you had anything to drink?” or “How much have you had to drink?” at the time of his arrest.
“Commissioner Ralph was not asked standard [DUI-related] questions that would have helped us build a case for DUI,” Francisco said. She added that virtually the only evidence she had to build a DUI case on, was the arresting officer’s assertions that he smelled alcohol on Ralph’s breath.
Francisco also alleged that officers handcuffed Ralph without first telling him he was going to be placed under arrest, and that he was not “Mirandized” at the time of his arrest. She said she would not go so far as calling the police handling of the case “incompetent.” The prosecutor said the officer did not have the specialized training that an officer on the Atlanta Police Department’s DUI Taskforce would have gotten.
“The officer was not trained to deal with DUI cases ... not to the extent that that unit would have been trained,” Francisco said. She said even the details about the alleged obstruction of an officer in the police report made that charge’s ability to stick questionable at best.
Because of those police-related issues, Francisco said her hands were “tied” and she was going to have to drop the DUI charges, and obstruction charges.
“I don’t even have a DUI to go forward on,” said the prosecutor, Thursday morning, about why she was offering Ralph a plea deal. “I am going for the highest regular traffic offense I have available to me.”
And, then there are questions about why the judge handling the case has not been kept better informed by attorneys and prosecutors about the status of the case. Graves said that Atlanta Municipal Court judges have a goal of resolving traffic and DUI cases in their courtrooms within six months of when the incidents at the hearts of those cases occurred.
He admitted, however, that the court has not yet reached the point where it can meet that goal. But, the judge said Ralph’s case, which is now eight months old, is “getting a little ripe.” The judge said he knew little of the case’s details this week, adding that should not have been so.
“Past six months, I should have been in the loop,” Graves said. He added that he also should have been brought into the loop on what was happening in the case because of Ralph’s public position, and media interest in the case.
When a reporter brought up the belief, among some Clayton County residents, that the case might be swept under the rug, Graves and Francisco acted puzzled about why that perception might exist. Reporters then explained some of Ralph’s ties to Reed. Francisco said no politicians had contacted the Atlanta Solicitor’s Office about the commissioner’s case.
“This [plea deal] does not have anything to do with political tampering,” the prosecutor said.