A Stockbridge man is asking a Clayton County Superior Court judge to order the City of Morrow to repay as much as $1 million, or more, in “court costs” that he claims people were illegally required to pay in the city’s municipal court.
Attorneys for Daniel Brackett filed a lawsuit, which could evolve into a class-action lawsuit, against the city earlier this month. They argue Morrow Municipal Court Judge Ronald Freeman reduced traffic citations to “warnings,” but then ordered the people facing those citations pay “court costs” that were, Brackett’s case, only $100 less than the traffic fine he had faced.
Brackett’s attorneys argue state law prohibits the city from doing that, because their client, and others like him, have not been found guilty of any crime.
“It is impermissible [under Georgia law] for courts to impose ‘court costs’ on criminal defendants, absent a legal adjudication of guilt and assessment of a criminal fine,” the attorneys wrote in their mandamus petition.
Brackett is asking Clayton County Superior Court Judge Geronda Carter to declare that making people pay “court costs” after their citations were reduced is illegal, and to bar Freeman from continuing to do so. He is also asking Carter to officially allow his suit to become a class-action lawsuit, to set a jury trial for the case, and to order Morrow to repay plaintiffs the amount of “court costs” they paid to the city.
Court documents show Brackett appeared in Morrow’s Municipal Court on Nov. 7, 2011, to face speeding charges and fines that amounted to several hundreds of dollars.
“During the hearing, Freeman told plaintiff Brackett that the normal fine for the charge pending against him would be $800, but that it was the normal policy of the court to reduce the charge to a ‘warning’ — but nonetheless collect ‘court costs’ in the amount of $700,” the lawsuit states.
One of Brackett’s attorneys, David Fife, said a “a warning is a non-adjudication of the charges” and therefore the same thing as Freeman saying his client is “not guilty” of speeding. “The alternative to finding someone guilty of something is to find them ‘not guilty,” so what is a warning if it is not the same thing as saying a person is ‘not guilty’ of a crime?” Fife asked.
Morrow City Manager Jeff Eady said a state Judicial Qualifications Commission has already reviewed Freeman’s manner of handling citations, and it did not report back to the city that Freeman was breaking any laws. “They didn’t find any red flags,” Eady said.
The city manager said the town’s liability insurance should cover any legal costs associated with the lawsuit, but he was unsure whether it would also cover any financial judgment issued against the city.
Fife said the Stockbridge resident is the only plaintiff listed, so far, in court records. He added, however, that he has been in touch with “six, or seven” other people who said they had similar experiences in Morrow Municipal Court, and will likely join the lawsuit.
Plaintiff’s attorneys wrote in their lawsuit that they believe the number of people who were ordered to pay “court costs” after their traffic citations were reduced to “warnings” could potential become part of the class-action lawsuit, could exceed 2,000 individuals, according to the lawsuit.
Fife said he is also looking to see if anyone comes forward saying they were treated the same way in the cities of Jonesboro and Riverdale, where Freeman also serves as a municipal court judge. They would not be joined into the Morrow lawsuit, however, he said.
“We have to file them [any potential suits against Riverdale or Jonesboro] as separate actions because we can’t add them as defendants in this case,” Fife said.