Columbus Court Abolishes "victim Fee", Pays Restitution to Survivors of Crime

12th October, 2017

Columbus, GA—Yesterday, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia approved a final class action settlement in Harrison v. Consolidated Government of Columbus, Georgia, et al., a case in which plaintiff Cleopatra Harrison challenged the imposition of “victim fees” on survivors of domestic violence.  As a result of the lawsuit, the Columbus Recorder’s Court will no longer charge victim fees, and people who paid such fees will receive restitution and compensation.  Plaintiffs were represented by the Southern Center for Human Rights and Columbus attorney, Mark Post.

Background

Plaintiff Cleopatra Harrison, then age 22, was subjected to the City’s victim fee policy when she appeared in the Columbus Recorder’s Court at a preliminary hearing concerning her boyfriend, who was charged with assaulting her.  The June 2016 assault left documented, visible bruises and lacerations on Harrison’s neck, face, and torso.  

After a police officer recounted the facts of the assault in court, Harrison truthfully affirmed those facts but expressed her wish not to serve as a witness for the prosecution.  Without any further inquiry, former Recorder’s Court Judge Michael Cielinski assessed a $150 “victim assessment” against Harrison.  Harrison could not afford to pay $150.  She was given a document warning that an arrest warrant would be summarily issued if she failed to pay within one week. 

Repeal of the Victim Fee Ordinance

Until the filing of this lawsuit, the Recorder’s Court assessed victim fees pursuant to a city ordinance.  Under the ordinance, women who experienced domestic violence were required to aid local law enforcement agencies in prosecuting people accused of violence against them.  Women who expressed their lack of interest in doing so were ordered to pay a victim fee. If they could not pay the fee, they were threatened with incarceration. The court consistently failed to consider why a victim of domestic violence might not want to press charges—such as fear of retaliation by the abusive partner. 

  • Harrison was just one of many women who came before the Recorder’s Court as a crime victim and left with a bill owed to the City.  For example:
  • In May 2016, police found a woman incoherent on the side of a road after her boyfriend beat her over the head with a handgun.  The woman appeared in court for her boayfriend’s preliminary hearing.  Although the woman was not responsible for police involvement in the incident, Judge Cielinski imposed a $200 “victim fee” on her when she expressed her preference for dropping the charges.  
  • In July 2016, a woman was having an argument with her boyfriend in their apartment.  During the argument, the woman’s finger was fractured.  An unknown person called police due to the disturbance.  When the woman appeared in court and asked that the charges be dismissed, Judge Cielinski imposed a “victim fee” of approximately $200.
  • In March 2016, a woman appeared at a preliminary hearing for her boyfriend, who was accused of poking the woman in the eye and stealing her debit card.  The woman affirmed all of the facts that she reported to police officers but expressed her view that she did not want to “go forward with the charges.”  Judge Cielinski imposed a $125 “victim fee.”

After the lawsuit was filed, the City repealed the victim fee ordinance.  “This was an archaic law that was being used by the court to punish and intimate victims of domestic violence,” said Sarah Geraghty, SCHR Managing Attorney.  “To the City’s great credit, it did not defend the ordinance, but repealed it and agreed to compensate those who were forced to pay so-called victim fees.” 

Class Settlement and Compensation

Under the terms of the settlement, the City agreed to provide a Settlement Fund in the amount of $41,844.00 for a total of 101 class members who paid victim fees.  Of the 101 total class members, 34 persons responded to the class notice.  Class members who opted into the settlement will soon be reimbursed the fees they paid, plus an additional $969 in compensatory damages.  Any unclaimed funds will be donated in cy pres to Hope Harbour, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence.