Lawsuit Challenges Court’s Blanket Policy of Barring Access to Criminal Court Files

14th November, 2016
Southern Center for Human Rights

Columbus Recorder’s Court accused of jailing indigent citizens in violation of law

Columbus, GA—On November 10, 2016, the Southern Center for Human Rights and Columbus attorney, Mark C. Post, filed King, et al., v. Consolidated Government of Columbus, Georgia, et al., on behalf of Elizabeth King and Keiona Wright, challenging the Columbus Recorder’s Court’s longstanding policy of refusing to provide public court records to citizens, including criminal defendants.

Keiona Wright and Elizabeth King are indigent women who recently appeared before the Columbus Recorder’s Court.  Wright is a single mother of five children, including nine-month-old twins, who was sentenced to 140 days in jail following a probation revocation hearing relating to her inability to pay traffic ticket fines.  Wright, who worked at a factory making near minimum wage, had previously been sentenced to five years on private probation supervision, plus $4,719.25 in fines and fees for traffic violations.  King, who has schizophrenia and survives on disability payments, was recently released from the Muscogee County Jail, after serving a 120-day sentence for taking food from a Piggly Wiggly.  

Wright and King expect to show that they were jailed in violation of their constitutional rights, including their right to counsel.  But they cannot access court files that would allow their attorneys to properly investigate their cases or make properly informed judgments about appropriate courses of action.

Wright and King have each tried to obtain records of their cases.  Consistent with the Court’s policy, in each instance, the Clerk refused to produce court records.  

The Court’s refusal to comply with public right of access laws makes it impossible for criminal defendants and their attorneys to determine the status of a given case, the length of a person’s jail sentence, the duration of a probation sentence, the conditions of probation, or the amount owed by the defendant. 

The Defendants’ failure to provide court records has also long frustrated efforts to challenge the litany of constitutional violations that occur daily in the Columbus Recorder’s Court.  For example:

  • The Recorder’s Court routinely denies indigent people the right to effective assistance of counsel;  
  • The Recorder’s Court routinely accepts pleas of guilty from indigent people without appropriate and constitutionally required advisements of the right to counsel;
  • The Recorder’s Court routinely fails to abide by Georgia law governing the imposition of fines and fees on people with significant financial hardships (O.C.G.A. § 42-8-102(c)–(f));
  • The Recorder’s Court routinely issues “pay or stay” sentences that require poor people to go to jail only because they cannot pay a certain amount of money;
  • The Recorder’s Court routinely jails indigent people for failure to pay fines and fees without inquiring into their ability to pay or considering alternatives to incarceration, in violation of the state and federal constitution and Georgia law.

Despite the approximately 60,000 cases that come before the Recorder’s Court each year, the City of Columbus purports to fulfill its obligation to indigent defendants by contracting with a single attorney.  Just one lawyer is available to provide advice and representation to thousands of indigent men and women who appear in the Recorder’s Court to face traffic citations, misdemeanors, ordinance violations, probation revocation proceedings, and felony probable cause hearings.  The impossibly high caseload shouldered by the Recorder’s Court’s sole defense attorney renders the provision of counsel essentially meaningless, even to those who, in theory, receive his services. 

Plaintiff Wright was not represented by counsel when the chief judge of the Recorder’s Court sent her to jail for unpaid traffic tickets.  When Wright protested that she was a single mother and that she did not have enough money to pay her light bill, Judge Cielinski said he did not “want to hear about [her]problems” and sentenced her to 140 days in jail, or a payment of $2,029.25.

“The tradition in this country has always been that criminal court records are presumptively open to the public and are sealed from public view only for compelling reasons,” said SCHR attorney, Sarah Geraghty.  “The Defendants’ policy of barring access to Recorder’s Court case files is significant barrier to people who wish to challenge their treatment in the Recorder’s Court.”

  

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