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Morrow reappoints judge despite lawsuit

By Jim Zachary

jzachary@news-daily.com

MORROW — Despite the fact he has landed the city in the middle of a $1 million lawsuit, the Morrow City Council voted unanimously to reappoint its city’s municipal judge Tuesday.

With no discussion, the council voted to reappoint Municipal Court Judge Ronald Freeman, who stands accused of charging excessive court costs to individuals whose traffic charges had been dismissed.

Stockbridge resident Daniel Brackett has filed the lawsuit in Clayton County Superior Court, where the case is still pending, awaiting an April 8 hearing.

Because Freeman’s one-year term as municipal judge was set to expire, the city could have just opted not to reappoint him in the midst of the pending lawsuit. However, the council voted to stay the course with Freeman, who also serves as city judge for Jonesboro and Riverdale.

Brackett alleges Freeman reduced his traffic charges to mere “warnings,” but then proceeded to assess as much as $700 in court fees, even though pleading guilty and paying the ticket would have just been another $100.

His attorney has argued that it is improper to charge court costs after effectively dismissing the charges by reducing them to a warning.

The plaintiff is also suggesting there could be as many as 2,000 other drivers who have had the same thing happen to them and he has petitioned the court to allow for a class action lawsuit against the city of Morrow.

Brackett suggests that the court costs associated with those charges reduced to warnings likely exceeds $1 million.

A municipal court largely hears cases involving traffic citations, but can also adjudicate violations of city ordinances and misdemeanor crimes that could include such things as shoplifting or simple possession of marijuana.

The lawsuit against the city also alleges the moneys collected as “court costs,” were never dispersed back to law enforcement, but rather were kept in the city coffers.

The city contracts with a municipal judge to preside over its court.

The city was named in the lawsuit, not Freeman personally, since the actions were performed while he was serving as city judge.

The city is being represented by Buford attorney Richard Carother, rather than city attorney Laurel Henderson.

Carother argues the city has “sovereign immunity,” and if the courts were to rule against the city it would open up Morrow to similar lawsuits from multiple plaintiffs.

The city has characterized Freeman’s practice of reducing charges to warnings and then assessing large court costs as a means of “alternative sentencing.”

Brackett’s attorney argues that a defendant in any court action cannot be sentenced if he has not been found guilty.

Freeman was reappointed to another one-year term.

The city council also reappointed Municipal Court Solicitor Jerry Patrick to a one-year term.

Councilman Larry Ferguson was tapped to replace Jeanell Bridges as mayor pro tem.