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Georgia city to compensate women unfairly charged fees for not testifying against their abusers

Georgia resident, Cleopatra Harrison became the face of a local movement last year when she was fined for not testifying against the boyfriend who abused her.

Related: Georgia city fines women who won't testify against their abusers

In October, Harrison, 23, aided by The Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR), sued the city of Columbus in U.S. District Court in Macon over what SCHR has called "victim's fees."

The lawsuit charged that women who experience domestic violence in Columbus are required to help law enforcement officials prosecute their attackers. If they chose not to help, they are fined at least $50 and may be threatened with jail time if they don't pay. According to the lawsuit, the city ordinance is in violation of state law unless a judge finds that the victim's original complaint was unfounded and malicious.

This week, SCHR reached a settlement with the city that will repay victims fees and damages to women who were impacted by ordinance from Oct. 5, 2014 to the present. An estimated 106 women have paid about $20,545 in fees in that time period.

A total settlement fund of $41,844 will be distributed to women who submit a qualifying claim. Each woman who qualifies will also be paid damages from any remaining funds after all settlement class members have been paid restitution.

Harrison, will be paid $5,000 as compensation for serving as the named plaintiff in the case.

It all began in June 2016, when Michael Lincoln, a police officer in Columbus, Georgia arrived at the home where Harrison lived with her boyfriend. Harrison had been pushed, punched and possibly choked by her boyfriend who had since left the home for work. The officer arrested him at his place of employment and charged him with felony aggravated assault.

But Harrison wasn't happy. She wanted protection, but she didn't want her boyfriend in jail, she said in an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine .

She had her reasons -- mostly financial -- for asking the court to drop the charges at the hearing four days later. That's when she learned she would have to pay $150 in fees. She signed an agreement which gave her seven days to pay, but before she could leave the clerk's office, Lincoln put her in handcuffs. He said she had lied to him about the assault.

Harrison spent 12 hours in jail battling anxiety and worrying that she would lose her job as a cleaning and food service contractor at Fort Benning. Her boyfriend paid $212.20 to bail her out -- money which went toward the payment of her victim's fee.

"I don't care what you do, I'm never going back in there," Harrison said she told her boyfriend. She continued living with him until he was arrested again and sent to jail. Once again, she couldn't afford the rent on her own, so she moved in with her mom where she still lives today. She hopes to earn a degree and become a medical assistant.

The lawsuit has brought her some local fame, but Harrison said she took on the role to help other women and make change. "I'm not suing to get no money," she said. "I'm suing for my rights."

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.