JONESBORO Former Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill won’t be going to trial as planned Nov. 26 because the prosecutor Thursday filed an intent to appeal a judge’s dismissal of five counts against him.
The Notice of Direct Appeal was filed in Clayton County Superior Court by special prosecutor Layla Zon about 90 minutes after a pre-trial hearing in the case ended. Zon is asking the Georgia Court of Appeals to review Judge Albert Collier’s dismissing of five counts related to campaign funds.
Hill, 47, was indicted in January on 37 felonies mostly related to his term as sheriff during 2005-2008. Five of those counts involve alleged misuse of campaign funds. Defense attorney Steve Frey asked for the dismissal in September based on the argument that Hill owned the funds and therefore could not steal from himself.
Collier agreed and dropped the charges last week, leaving 32 counts.
Zon, who is the Alcovy Circuit district attorney, said the decision to appeal was made after careful consideration of the court’s order and the law.
“This is an important issue, whether a candidate for office can take his or her campaign funds for purposes not allowed by law and if he or she does, what is the penalty for the misuse of those funds?” said Zon.
Collier ruled that a candidate owns his or her campaign money since state law doesn’t specify a legal owner. He further ruled that if the candidate is not the legal owner, misuse of the funds for personal use constitutes a misdemeanor and not a felony as the state charged in its indictment of Hill.
Zon said the ruling raises more questions than it answered.
“Is it only an ethical violation under the ethics statute — which is a misdemeanor, no matter how much money is misappropriated — or is it also theft?” she said. “The state’s position is that it is both. This matters not only to the citizens of Clayton County but also throughout the entire state.”
Frey said he was not happy with the state’s decision to appeal.
“We’re extremely disappointed but we’ll fight this fight anywhere they want to fight,” he said.
The appeal delays the start of the trial until after the first of the year. Although it is hard to predict what a panel of judges will do, Frey said he anticipates a delay of at least 60 days, if the appeal is docketed tomorrow.
Zon agreed but expects an even longer delay.
“It could take eight months to a year,” she said.
The trial was due to be held 20 days after the Nov. 6 general election. Hill is on the ballot as the Democratic candidate for sheriff. He is being challenged by nonpartisan candidate Garland Watkins. Hill won the August runoff with incumbent Sheriff Kem Kimbrough.
Because of his pending criminal case, Hill’s law enforcement certification from Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council has been suspended. Unless he is certified six months after taking office, should he beat Watkins, Hill will not be qualified to hold office.
Frey said the delay will impact Hill’s certification.
“I don’t think it will impact his taking the oath of office but it impacts his certification,” he said. “It won’t impact it on merit but on the timeline because within six months, he has to be POST-certified.”
If Hill does take office Jan. 1, he will be Clayton County’s first sheriff to begin a four-year term under felony indictment.