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Southern Center for Human Rights Sends Warning Letter to City of Clarkston Regarding Unlawful Practices in the Clarkston Municipal Court

On Friday, attorneys from the Southern Center for Human Rights sent a letter to Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry, Clarkston City Attorney Stephen Quinn, and Clarkston Municipal Court Judge David C. Will, calling for the Clarkston Municipal Court to cease unlawful practices impacting the city’s predominantly refugee population. The Court’s practices, which are longstanding, clearly violate the rights of people who appear before the Court, as well as the United States Constitution, Georgia Constitution, Georgia Code, and Uniform Municipal Court Rules.

Imposition of Illegal Pay-or-Jail Sentences

Pay-or-jail sentences are those in which the Court requires people either to pay a set dollar amount or, if they are unable to pay, to be jailed.  Courts have long declared these sentences illegal because they subject indigent people to incarceration for no other reason than their poverty.  Despite this precedent, the Clarkston Municipal Court regularly imposes pay-or-jail sentences.  Since June of 2018, SCHR has witnessed multiple instances in which the Court has imposed pay-or-jail sentences almost exclusively on homeless or indigent individuals.  For instance, the court sentenced B.S., a homeless man diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who allegedly failed to make probation payments and report to his probation officer, to either pay $1,500 or serve 60 days in jail   Because he could not afford to pay $1,500, B.S. served 45 days in jail.

“The City of Clarkston has an obligation to protect the rights of all its residents, regardless of the size of their bank account or their country of origin,” said Ebony Brown, attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “Unfortunately, the practices laid out in this letter disproportionately affect and penalize Clarkston’s large immigrant population.”

Failure to Provide Adequate Interpreter Services for non-English Speaking Defendants in Court

Clarkston has welcomed 40,000 refugees over the past 25 years.  In order to ensure that all people who interact with the criminal legal system can both understand and meaningfully participate in the legal process, municipal courts are required by law to provide interpreters and other language services to any defendant who has limited English proficiency.  Clarkston Municipal Court regularly fails to comply with Georgia law.  SCHR has repeatedly witnessed the Court allow uncertified individuals, such as family members or indiscriminate courtroom witnesses, to interpret the proceedings for them.  In other instances, the court has deprived limited English-speaking defendants of interpreter services entirely. 

On October 3, 2018, K.A., a 27-year-old West African student whose primary languages are Ewe and French, appeared before the Court for trial.  During K.A.’s trial, the public defender explicitly told the Court that he could not understand K.A.  At one point, the public defender asked the Court if K.A. could cross examine a witness himself because he could not understand K.A. The Court also struggled to communicate with K.A.  Yet the Court did not make a language proficiency determination and did not require the use of an interpreter during K.A.’s trial.  Instead, the Court proceeded with the trial, found K.A. guilty, and sentenced him to 6 months in jail.  K.A. served the entire 6-month sentence before his release on March 31, 2019.

“In court, a small misunderstanding or mistranslation can have life-altering implications,” said Atteeyah Hollie, a Senior Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “It’s critically important that Clarkston Municipal Court provide certified and registered interpreters who are fluent in languages widely spoken in Clarkston.”

The letter also raises concerns about the Court’s routine failure to inquire into defendants’ ability to pay before imposing financial obligations at sentencing and unlawfully ordering the DeKalb County Jail to withhold defendants’ ‘good time’ credits.

The letter asks the City to respond by December 13, 2019, with plans to bring the Court into constitutional and statutory compliance.

Read the letter here.