THE TIME HAS COME
By: Jeff Lasseter 02/16/2015
Some may remember the Andy Griffith Show episode in which an out-of-towner received a traffic ticket passing through Mayberry on his way to a meeting. Sheriff Andy Taylor let him go on to the meeting with a promise that he would return for court. When he didn’t show for court, Andy arrested him and brought him back to Mayberry. While the man was complaining about being brought back for a traffic ticket, Andy was sitting behind a nameplate on his desk that read “Sheriff”. The out-of-towner continued to complain, but received no satisfaction from the Sheriff. So, he demanded to speak to the Justice of the Peace. Upon that request, Andy smiled and simply turned the nameplate around so that it then read “Justice of the Peace.” That was a classic scene in what can be described as perhaps the best written series in the history of television.
That story is just an humorous example of why the time has come to see that every criminal and traffic court in the state is armed with an independent prosecutor. Judges of court deserve to have a prosecutor as a buffer between them and the people who are charged with traffic and other misdemeanor criminal offenses, whether the offenses are a violation of Georgia law or of a county or city ordinance. Furthermore, attorneys and those charged with offenses deserve to have a prosecutor in place to discuss the matters and potentially negotiate a disposition that is mutually beneficial to all parties. Judges cannot be de facto arbiters. They are final decision makers. Moreover, law enforcement officers who are required to testify as witnesses become de facto prosecutors. The people charged are not being given the opportunity to enjoy the distinct branches of the criminal (traffic offender) justice system – a judge, a prosecutor, and a defense argument made by an attorney or by themselves.
Municipal courts generally handle city offenses. Probate courts are widely used for misdemeanor and traffic offenses in counties without a State Court. These courts serve vital purposes. First, revenues derived from these courts are used to fund city or county services. Second, the cases handled in these courts relieve the already over-burdened State or Superior courts of even more to do. Third, these cases are often disposed of earlier in the process so that closure can be obtained for all involved.
Many attorneys who are faced with representing people in courts that do not have an independent prosecutor simply bind the case over to State or Superior Court without even attempting to resolve it at the lower level. In those cases (1) the city or county does not receive the income, and (2) those courts now have more cases to handle. Moreover, most counties do not have a State Court, so in those areas the cases go directly to Superior Court with the same effect.
Every court in Houston County has a prosecutor. This should be the model. Warner Robins, Perry, and Centerville each have independent contract prosecutors that negotiate with attorneys or offenders directly, thereby keeping the judge out of the equation until the appropriate time. Houston County State Court has three full-time prosecutors. Judges are the first to say that they cannot be a part of the negotiating process. It makes sense. In addition, the process also puts law enforcement in an equally bad position. They are now required to act as chief witnesses to their own cases, and are also asked to engage in some sort of negotiating process with the offender. This is not a recipe for effective court administration.
Independent contract prosecutors are not expensive. A vast majority of counties are likely to have attorneys willing to and capable of acting in this capacity. The costs of the services of the attorneys would be more than covered by the increase in revenue to the courts in keeping these cases at the city or county level rather than the state level. To be blunt, most of these cases need to be right where they are and not burdening State and Superior Courts.
The time has come for the Georgia legislature to address the need for independent prosecutors in all courts that have the authority to restrict the liberty of citizens.