Grady County Is Asked To Repay Thousands In Illegal Court Fees

9th August, 2013
Daily Report
R. Robin McDonald

The Southern Center for Human Rights is pushing a south Georgia county to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal administrative costs charged to criminal defendants by a state court judge who was suspended by the state judicial disciplinary agency earlier this year.

Center lawyers sent a letter of complaint to the Grady County Commission this week, informing them that for more than seven years, Grady County State Court Judge J. William Bass Sr. imposed on hundreds of defendants costs that he created "out of whole cloth as a money-making mechanism for the county" and had no legal authority to levy.

The letter was written on behalf of a Grady County defendant who appeared before Bass and was assessed $700 in costs not authorized by state law, said center attorney Sarah Geraghty. Geraghty declined to identify the woman.

Geraghty added that the center has been contacted by others who say Bass bolstered the county treasury by boosting state-mandated fines and surcharges by up to $800 per case.

Geraghty said that the center has successfully reclaimed illegal fees charged to jailed defendants by a Georgia sheriff and by county probation offices. The Grady County complaint letter is the first time it has initiated a legal action against a county for costs and fees illegally levied by a local judge.

"I am not aware of any other court that is imposing illegal and unauthorized fees of this magnitude," she said.

But Jeffrey Davis, director of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, told the Daily Report Thursday that the agency, which polices the state's judges but generally operates under a broad tent of confidentiality, has "received similar complaints from other courts regarding unauthorized fees and has sought to address that through judicial training."

"I routinely caution judges … that they need to be very careful to ensure that the fines and the fees that they assess are specifically authorized by law," he said.

Last March, the JQC brought Bass up on ethics charges that included allegations that he violated state law by adding local fees for each defendant whose case he adjudicated and that he funneled those fees into county coffers in order to maximize county revenues and enhance his own salary.

Bass was also charged with allowing Facebook friends to influence his judicial conduct, retaliating against county contractors he believed had supported his political opponent, and placing an empty chair on trial instead of a defendant—and then convicting it—after the defendant failed to appear for court.

Midway through his ethics trial, Bass reached a settlement with the JQC that included a public reprimand, a 60-day suspension and a promise not to seek re-election after his term expires next year.

Bass, Grady County Commission Chairman Billy Poitevint and County Attorney Kevin Cauley could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Geraghty said the JQC's ethics charges against Bass prompted Southern Center lawyers to take a look at the administrative costs the judge routinely levied on defendants.

The administrative costs that Bass added to fines and surcharges "bear no relationship to any defendant's particular offense, and were instead assessed for the sole purpose of raising revenue," said the Grady County complaint letter, which Geraghty signed.

"Through its practice of collecting unauthorized costs in the State Court, Grady County has taken possession of substantial sums of money from hundreds of persons" and "violates numerous provisions of the U.S. Constitution and the Georgia Constitution," the letter stated. The illegal assessments, the letter said, also violates state law because it "constitutes conversion of our client's money."

In a letter made public by the JQC that Bass sent to the Grady County Commission last year, the judge requested that his $40,000 salary be increased to $60,000 because fines and fees he assessed had generated more than $350,000 a year for the county.

In a formal response to the JQC charges, Bass argued that the letter "was not written to advocate that he was entitled to a salary increase based upon the amount of funds collected." The judge's response also said he had "erred in collecting the [unauthorized] costs" and "the scope of his discretionary powers" to levy the additional fees. The error, he said, "was not willful but was a clerical error."

Geraghty said that before sending the complaint letter to Grady County, center lawyers pored over every criminal disposition Bass handled from June 2011 through July 2012. During that period, Bass levied $296,711 in unauthorized costs against 540 defendants, she said. "Those are administrative costs which the court had no authority to charge."

Geraghty said the center has not yet calculated the total of unauthorized fees the judge levied. "We know the practice has been going on for many years," she said. "It is a lot of money."

"The judge made so clear what he was using the court to do," Geraghty added. She noted that the judge said in his letter, to generate that much money a year for a rural county, "'The judge must go beyond the call of the job.'"

She said: "That is a completely inappropriate use of a court of justice."

Mountain Circuit District Attorney Brian Rickman, who prosecuted Bass during his ethics trial before the JQC, said the judge manipulated state statutes that not only establish fines but also surcharges for funds such as the statewide Brain and Spinal Trust Fund, the Peace Officers Standards and Training Fund and the Drug Abuse Treatment and Education Fund. These surcharges are derived from the base fine for an offense.

Bass, he said, "carved out his own surcharge" so that more of the fines and fees would stay in Grady County and that—if the money owed was paid in installments—Grady County would receive its share first. "I'm in a rural county," he said. "We are all looking for revenue. But you can't just ignore the law."

Rickman, who objected to the JQC's decision to reach a settlement with Bass that allowed him to remain on the bench, said Bass' letter to the Grady County Commission took credit for a practice he later claimed was an innocent mistake. Bass, he said, stopped the practice only after the JQC filed its ethics charges. Rickman said it also appeared that, once the charges were filed, Bass reviewed a number of cases and "the sentences were being reworked to comply" with state law.

Rickman said Bass' apparent manipulation of court fines and fees clearly was intended to enhance the county's cut of the revenue. But he suggested that, because of the way the state mandates the assessment of those fees, if Bass had followed the law, the defendants he assessed might not have ended up paying any less.

Instead, Bass' method of assessing county court costs "ended up depriving all those statutorily directed funds of what they should have gotten," the district attorney said.

"Here's the thing," Rickman continued. "If every court in the state could do this … if we don't say this is not OK, if every jurisdiction can do this, they can get around the legislatively created surcharges.

"You can have a policy argument about whether more money should be kept locally in these hard budget times. That's a legitimate conversation to have. But you have to follow the law. … I would love to go into court and say, 'Hey, Judge, I've come up with a new surcharge.' That's all well and good, but it ain't legal."