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Court-Watching on March 6, 2019, at the Atlanta Municipal Court

At the Southern Center for Human Rights, we’ve used court-watching as a tool for a long time. Court-watching was central to the litigation and advocacy that led to the creation of a Public Defender system in Georgia; it’s been central to our strategy in combating illegal practices by private probation companies, and it’s always helping us to uncover the rare and appalling corruption of city and court officials who are attempting to turn a profit off of the backs of poor people. We think that these stories matter.

Today, we’re launching our first court-watching summary. The below observations are from a staff investigator who watched court at the Atlanta Municipal Court on March 6th, 2019. The experiences of these defendants reflects what happens in Municipal Courts across the state on a daily basis: the imposition of many days in jail on poor, homeless, and/or mentally ill individuals who are charged with misdemeanors or ordinance violations.

A 56-year-old Black man was charged with Pedestrian Walking in Roadway. An officer rolled him into court in a wheelchair, where he was slumped, with his eyes mostly closed.

The assistant solicitor read some of the defendant’s prior charges: Pedestrian Soliciting in Roadway, with a Failure to Appear from 2014; another Pedestrian Soliciting in the Roadway charge from 2018. The public defender (PD) asked Judge Sloan to quash all three citations. She cited a Georgia Court of Appeals case, Strickland v. State, and argued that the citations were defective because they didn’t state the essential elements of the charged offenses. Judge Sloan gave the solicitor time to prepare a response as other defendants came before the judge. At the end of court, the defendant was brought back in front of Judge Sloan. The PD requested time served, because the defendant was indigent and the charges were non-violent, quality of life charges. The PD asked for leniency, as the defendant was “merely walking.” The solicitor recommended 30 days to serve in jail.  Judge Sloan sentenced the defendant to 20 days in jail on each count, to run concurrently.

A 32-year-old Black woman was charged with Begging/Soliciting by Accosting/Force. According to the arrest report, the defendant was homeless.

The assistant solicitor announced the defendant’s prior charge of Solicitation of Money within 15 feet of a business. Other prior convictions included Violating Rules at Passenger Train Station (she hadn’t paid a MARTA fare); Solicitation for Money on Train; Solicitation and Possession of Marijuana; and Failures to Appear for walking in between train cars. The defendant told Judge Sloan she did not want an attorney. The Judge told the woman that these charges could cost her $6,000, 3 years to serve in jail, or both. The defendant seemed confused. She said that she thought she had already served time for the charges that the Judge was reading, and became distressed, trying to inform the court that she had already served the time, and looked around the room in an attempt to find the public defender who had previously represented her. The public defender was not in the room, and the Judge did not respond. As the Judge read each of the charges, the defendant kept repeating “nolo” rapidly, cutting into each charge before it was finished being read. Her behavior seemed likely to be caused by a mental illness. Throughout the process, the defendant was bouncing up and down on her toes. Judge Sloan sentenced her to 10 days in jail.

A 49-year-old Latinx man was charged with driving without a license.

The public defender (PD) announced that this was the defendant’s second license charge in 5 years. The PD asked Judge Sloan to accept a negotiated nolo contendere plea (a plea by which a defendant accepts conviction as though a guilty plea had been entered, but does not admit guilt) so that he could be released from jail. As he pled nolo, he seemed to be relying on the PD’s prompting to answer questions. The PD told Judge Sloan (paraphrasing) that the standard sentence was $1,000 or 10 days to serve Judge Sloan said that he would impose a $1,000 fine and a 10 day jail sentence. He said he would suspend the fine, so the defendant can serve out the remainder of this 10 days. There was no inquiry into the defendant’s ability to afford a fine.

A 40-year-old Black man was charged with Walking Upon Control Access Highway. The defendant likely had a mental illness that appeared to make it difficult for him to understand what was happening in the courtroom.

As the defendant stepped up to the podium, the bailiff tried to help him pull up his pants, which were falling down. The defendant began working on untying a belt or rope that was tied around his pants, which preoccupied him throughout the time that Judge Sloan was speaking to him. A public defender entered a negotiated guilty plea, and the solicitor recommended 5 days in jail. The Judge asked the defendant if he was aware of each of his rights, and he responded “yeah, yeah,” while continuing to fiddle with his pants. When the Judge asked how he wanted to plea, he said, again, “yeah, yeah.” The Judge changed his tone and asked: “do you plead guilty?” The defendant seemed startled and stopped fidgeting with his pants. He replied, in a surprised tone, “oh, ok!” The Judge sentenced him to 5 days in jail. The defendant, again seeming surprised, said “oh, ok!” He left the court-room still trying to tie up his pants.