The city of Columbus Recorder’s Court has been fining victims of domestic abuse who decline to testify against their alleged abuser, according to a federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday.
The Southern Center for Human Rights on Wednesday sued in U.S. District Court in Macon, charging that domestic violence victims in Columbus are required by city ordinance to help law enforcement prosecute their attackers. If they don’t — even if they did not report the abuse — they must be fined.
“The city’s policy toward women experiencing domestic violence sounds like something out of the 19th century,” said attorney Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center. “It’s a holdover from an era in which women were blamed for male violence.”
The suit said women who ask that charges be dropped or who refuse to testify against spouses or boyfriends are ordered to pay a “victim assessment” of at least $50 — and often several times that much — “without any consideration of the circumstances of their cases or their reasons for desiring not to prosecute.”
The complaint was brought in the name of Cleopatra Harrison, 22, who earns $12 an hour as a cleaning and food service contractor at Fort Benning. The defendants listed in the suit are Recorder’s Court Judge Michael Cielinski, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr, Columbus Police Chief Ricky Boren and officer Michael Lincoln.
Officer Lincoln told Judge Cielinski that Harrison’s boyfriend was responsible for bruises and lacerations on her neck, face and body. But then Harrison said she would not give evidence against her boyfriend.
Cielinski imposed a $150 “victim assessment” and told her she would be arrested if she did not pay within a week.
“It’s hard to believe that we’ve taken the concept of debtors’ prison to this new low,” Geraghty said.
The Columbus Mayor’s Office said it would email a statement responding to the suit, but no email arrived on Wednesday.
According to the suit, Cleopatra Harrison called police June 9 after a fight with her boyfriend over dirty dishes in the sink.
But Harrison left before the police arrived, escaping to a friend’s house. The friend called the police the next day.
Harrison told the officers the boyfriend punched her and grabbed her neck, choking her unconscious, according to the complaint.
The boyfriend was arrested on a felony aggravated assault charge.
In court four days later, Harrison confirmed the details Lincoln laid out for the judge but said she would not help prosecutors.
After Harrison left the courtroom, Lincoln found her at the clerk’s office, where he shoved her against a wall, handcuffed her and jailed her on a charge of giving him “fake information,” the suit said.
The boyfriend, by then out on bond, posted Harrison’s $212.50 bail, and that money was applied to her “victim assessment.”
Geraghty said Georgia law allows for anyone who falsely and maliciously reports a crime to be fined, but judges in Columbus Recorder’s Court impose the fine regardless of the validity of the report — or the victim’s reasons for not testifying.
“I have never heard of a judge imposing a fee of this kind on a victim with no inquiry into the circumstances of the case,” Geraghty said.
The Southern Center said investigators had found other examples of women being fined in Columbus Recorder’s Court when they declined to testify against their abusers.
- In May, police found an incoherent woman on the side of a road whose boyfriend had beaten her with a handgun, the lawsuit said. Even though she didn’t call the police, Judge Cielinski imposed a $200 “victim fee” when the woman asked that the charges be dropped.
- A neighbor called Columbus police in July because a woman and her boyfriend were arguing. The boyfriend allegedly fractured her finger, but she still asked that charges be dropped. She was assessed a $200 fee.
- In March, a woman told the judge she did not want to pursue charges against her boyfriend, who allegedly poked her in the eye and stole her debit card. Cielinski imposed a $125 “victim fee.