The Georgia Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments Tuesday related to a lawsuit in which a woman was jailed for a speeding fine she already had paid.
Camille Harrell sued Houston County and Sentinel Offender Services, a private probation company, for allegedly violating her constitutional right to be free from false arrest and false imprisonment after the July 2005 incident.
She sought a jury trial. However, Fulton County State Court dismissed the lawsuit. Harrell, who lives in Clayton County, appealed twice to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
In June 2009, the state Court of Appeals reversed the Fulton County State Court decision and found that “the Houston County State Court routinely issued invalid arrest warrants at Sentinel’s request,” according to a summary of cases provided to the media by the Georgia Supreme Court’s Office of Public Affairs. The appellate court’s decision was appealed.
At issue before the Georgia Supreme Court is whether a procedural error in connection to the filing of the appeal nullifies the appellate ruling. At stake is whether Harrell’s lawsuit will go before a jury, or be dismissed, said Albert Pearson III, an Atlanta attorney representing Harrell.
Pearson said he expects the state Supreme Court justices will only hear arguments related to the procedural question, and not those related to alleged civil rights violations.
However, Pearson said a jury needs to hear how it was common practice in Houston County to violate the constitutional rights of anyone appearing in traffic court.
Fine paid; woman later arrested
In Harrell’s case, she was ticketed for speeding along Interstate 75 in Houston County and opted to contest the $162 ticket, according to the case summary. However, when she arrived at State Court for her court date, she learned that anyone pleading guilty to a traffic violation had to post a bond twice the amount of the ticket, the summary said.
She decided to pay the fine, the judge accepted the plea and imposed a 12-month suspended sentence, which would end once she paid the fine, the summary said.
She was required to complete paperwork for the private probation company and told she would also have to pay a $25 supervision fee to the probation company, according to the summary. She left the courthouse, withdrew cash from an ATM, returned and was taken by a Sentinel employee to the clerk’s office where she paid the $162 fine. She was not asked to pay the $25 service fee, the summary stated.
But a warrant was later issued for her arrest after a Sentinel probation officer received a report that she failed to make the $187 payment. Harrell was arrested at her Clayton County home in July 2005, jailed over the weekend in Clayton County and then transported to Houston County, Pearson said.
Harrell was released from jail and all charges were dropped once Houston County received a faxed receipt showing she had paid the fine, according to the summary.
Pearson argued that Houston County engaged in four unconstitutional practices: conducting mass arraignments in traffic court; requiring all defendants desiring to plead guilty to post a bond amount double the traffic fine; allowing the probation company to charge a $25 supervision fee for those who pay fines immediately; and issuing an invalid arrest warrant in July 2005. He said arrest warrants are to be sworn under oath, which was apparently not the practice in Houston County State Court, Pearson said.
Had Houston County not engaged in those practices, Harrell never would have been arrested and jailed, Pearson argued. After hearing the oral arguments from attorneys, the Georgia Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling within five months, said Jane Hansen, public information officer for the Georgia Supreme Court.
Timothy Buckley III and Tracy Haff, Atlanta attorneys representing Houston County and Sentinel, respectively, could not be reached for comment.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.