Lawsuit Challenges City’s Domestic-violence “victim Fee” Policy and Threats to Incarcerate Women Who Fail to Pay

5th October, 2016
Southern Center for Human Rights

Columbus, GA--Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Columbus attorney, Mark C. Post, filed Harrison v. Consolidated Government of Columbus, Georgia, et al., on behalf of Cleopatra Harrison, challenging a policy by the Columbus Recorder’s Court of imposing an illegal victim fee on women experiencing domestic violence and then threatening to jail those who fail to pay it.  The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.  

Under the City’s official policy, women who experience domestic violence are required to aid local law enforcement agencies in prosecuting people accused of violence against them.  Women who express their lack of interest in doing so are ordered to pay a victim fee pursuant to a City ordinance without any consideration of the circumstances of their cases or their reasons for desiring not to prosecute.  People ordered to pay the illegal fee are further threatened with incarceration if they fail to pay.

Cleopatra Harrison, age 22, was subjected to the City’s victim fee policy when she appeared in the Columbus Recorder’s Court at a preliminary hearing for her boyfriend, who was charged with assaulting her.  The assault left 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, Defendant Judge Michael Cielinski assessed a $150 “victim assessment” against Harrison.  Harrison, who is indigent, 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. 

Harrison is just one of many women who have come 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.  As instructed by City police officers, the woman appeared in court for her boyfriend’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.”  Defendant Cielinski imposed a $125 “victim fee.”

The Recorder’s Court’s practice of imposing “victim fees” and threatening to incarcerate people who cannot pay inflicts needless harm on crime victims and lacks any basis in Georgia law.  In her lawsuit, Harrison asks the federal court to stop the Defendants from imposing fees on crime victims and to require the City to return fees collected in the last four years. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Studies show that people experiencing domestic violence are most at risk of harm when attempting to leave their relationship.  According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, on average, it takes many survivors an average of seven attempts before they actually leave an abuser.  

“The City’s policy toward women experiencing domestic violence sounds like something out of the nineteenth century,” said SCHR attorney, Sarah Geraghty.  “It’s a holdover from an era in which women were blamed for male violence.”  Regarding the threat to summarily jail indigent people for non-payment of the victim fee, Geraghty added: “It’s hard to believe that we’ve taken the concept of “debtors’ prison” to this new low.”

 

To read the Complaint, click here.

 

For additional information, contact Kathryn Hamoudah at 404/688-1202 or [email protected]