Atlanta Municipal Court judges have dismissed at least 14,500 cases since 2007 because officers failed to show up in court, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has found.
One man, an accused ticket scalper, walked free on at least seven separate cases because no officer was in court to testify against him. And a city motorcycle officer missed court more than a hundred times, although records indicate that he wasn’t subpoenaed for all those cases.
It’s impossible to tell where the fault lies for the thousands of dismissals: with the police, for failing to show; with the city solicitor’s office, for failing to notify the officers about court dates; or with the court itself, for not consistently notifying the police department when officers didn’t appear.
The newspaper found evidence that all three — the police, the prosecutors and the court — contributed to the problem.
What is clear is that the 14,500 dismissed cases could have generated close to $2 million in fines for the city.
“The number of cases being dismissed due to (officers’ failure to appear) is unacceptable, and we must all work together to find a solution so that proper justice can be served,” Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said in a statement. “I expect officers to appear in court, regardless of the case, when they are subpoenaed … I can assure you I do not take this issue lightly.”
City Solicitor Raines Carter did not find evidence that his office had issued subpoenas in a large percentage of cases scrutinized by the newspaper.
“If we’re not able to show you (evidence of subpoenas being issued), that is an issue,” Carter said. “That’s a problem.”
‘It’s an issue. It’s not a big issue.’
This article is the latest in an ongoing investigation into cases that get thrown out because the officers responsible don’t appear in court to testify. In the first article, the AJC found that Fulton County’s Magistrate Court judges have dismissed more than 1,800 cases since 2010 because of officer no-shows. The newspaper also found evidence that Atlanta police were mishandling subpoenas that had been served with the department.
“Subsequent to your last article, I have re-emphasized to my commanders the importance of officers meeting their court obligations,” Turner said in his statement. “We have also discussed the need to improve our system of notifying officers when they receive subpoenas from the courts, conceding that at times our processes haven’t been as good as they should be.”
In the case of Atlanta Municipal Court, the newspaper has exposed thousands of dismissals per year and found breakdowns in communication between the police, prosecutors and court officials.
Over the past three years, judges dismissed an average of roughly 2,500 cases each year because of officer no-shows, while an average of about 9,300 subpoenas yearly were issued by the solicitors office. (Though called subpoenas, the documents are actually “notices to appear” in Municipal Court and not orders signed by judges.)
The court’s chief judge, Herman Sloan, describes officer no-shows as an “issue,” but stops short of describing it as a problem.
“It is an issue. It’s not a big issue,” Sloan said. “Somewhere between ‘it’s an issue’ and ‘it’s not a big issue’ is where it lies.”
Carter, the city solicitor, said that no one has reported to him that officer no-shows are a problem. He also said he was not aware that his office records indicate that an unknown number of subpoenas haven’t been sent to officers to appear in court.
After analyzing the court’s data and identifying the thousands of dismissals, the AJC asked the Atlanta Police Department to research six dozen cases involving officers who, according to the data, were among the most chronic no-shows.
The police determined that officers had been subpoenaed in those cases only a quarter of the time, and the solicitor’s office came up with similar numbers. (The office searched its electronic database, which is how most of the subpoenas are sent, but not its paper subpoena files.)
Turner, the police chief, said it is “imperative that the court system properly subpoena our officers and notify us if they fail to appear. We cannot rectify a problem if we’re not fully aware of its depth.”
Carter said he plans to take a closer look at the issue and determine the scope of the problem. “I’m certainly concerned enough to … get all of the players together and look at it from beginning to end.”
Each dismissed case is a potential fine uncollected. Fines are imposed in about 79 percent of Municipal Court cases, according to 2012 data. And the average amount of each fine is $170. If even 50 percent of the dismissed cases had yielded a $170 fine, the city could have taken in nearly $1.2 million. At 79 percent, the total is closer to $2 million.
“It can be a hefty chunk of money,” John Randolph Fuller, criminology professor at the University of West Georgia, said of fine revenue. “There’s more money to be had if the system can get more efficient in getting more police officers there to back up their citations.”
‘I was thinking that people were pleading out’
Roderick Hill, 41, joined the Atlanta police force in February 2000. He’s been handing out traffic tickets on the department’s motorcycle unit since May 2007.
Since that year, records show, the Municipal Court has dismissed at least 103 cases because Hill failed to appear. In 2010 alone, Hill had at least 36 cases tossed.
But Hill doesn’t believe he received notices to appear for all those cases, and evidence indicates that he has a point.
The police could find that Hill was subpoenaed for only three of those 36 cases thrown out in 2010. And the solicitor’s office has a record of sending only five subpoenas electronically to Hill that year.
In a telephone interview, Hill said he was surprised by the 103 dismissals linked to him and doesn’t believe he received subpoenas in most of those cases.
“We don’t get them,” Hill said of the subpoenas. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Hill said he’s noticed for several years that he was receiving far fewer subpoenas than he expected, considering the number of tickets he writes each year. In fact, he said, his supervisor said he was going to inquire about the issue with the court system. But he didn’t hear any more about it, and he still believes he receives an unusually low number of subpoenas.
“I was thinking that people were pleading out,” Hill said, referring to cases that don’t require his presence. “I didn’t know that they were wanting to go to trial.”
One officer, 66 cases dismissed
Most of the officers who had the highest number of dismissals are, like Hill, Atlanta police motorcycle officers.
But one of them was a vice cop.
Bennie Bridges resigned to avoid being fired in July 2011, after being the lead investigator in the infamous police raid at a Midtown gay bar, Atlanta Eagle. Bridges had at least 66 cases dismissed dating to 2007.
When reached by phone, a man who identified himself as Bennie Bridges said, “I’m no longer with the police department. Goodbye,” and hung up on a reporter.
At least 23 of those dismissals came in 2010. The solicitor’s office found evidence that it issued subpoenas for 14 of those cases. Most of those citations involved charged women with soliciting sex acts.
Bridges dished out three of those citations on Sept. 22, 2010.
The first came at 8:40 p.m. at an intersection in the Hammond Park community in south Atlanta. A 34-year-old Atlanta woman approached Bridges in his undercover vehicle “and asked if I wanted some fun.” Bridges said yes.
“She then asked what I was spending and I said $30 and she said, ‘Let’s go to your house and I will give you some good (sex),” Bridges wrote in his police citation.
Over the next six weeks, those three cases would be dismissed because Bridges didn’t show up in court, records show. Atlanta police, however, say they have no record of Bridges receiving subpoenas in any of those cases.
‘The current system is less than ideal’
When officers miss court hearings, the police department receives an email from the court listing those officers’ names and cases.
A review of the six dozen cases, however, revealed that the court notified the police about absences less than 10 percent of the time.
Asked about the sporadic notifications, Chris Patterson, court administrator for Atlanta Municipal Court, denied that the court sends failure-to-appear notices to the police. Patterson said it was the city solicitor’s job to make those notifications. Both the solicitor’s office and the police department, however, said the emailed notices are sent by the court.
Further, in the majority of instances in which the Municipal Court reported an officer failed to appear in court, the internal reviews by Atlanta police found that the solicitor’s office never sent a subpoena.
Atlanta police data reveals that the department received 2,288 complaints about officers failing to appear — known as “FTAs” — in Municipal Court since 2008. For more than half of those, the police reported never receiving a subpoena.
Turner said in his statement that his department is meeting with court officials to solve the problem.
“We believe the current system of issuing subpoenas to officers is less than ideal, and often results in officers not being properly notified of their need to appear in court,” he wrote. “We are working towards a resolution in concert with court officials.”
Two officers, Timothy Zbikowski and Benjamin Karably, have received the most FTA complaints — 20 apiece — dating back to 2008. All but one of them involved Municipal Court hearings.
For at least 30 of those complaints, the police contended that the officers never received subpoenas for the hearings.
A series of charges, a series of dismissals
The apparent disorganization in Atlanta’s criminal justice system benefits some. Numerous defendants have been fortunate enough to get multiple cases dismissed, the AJC’s analysis found.
One man had six cases tossed, most of them for selling cigarettes at Underground Atlanta. Another had five traffic citations dismissed.
But for Willie Lowe, 51, of Atlanta, the court dismissed at least seven cases since 2009. All involved ticket scalping.
Lowe, who could not be reached for comment, has been cited with scalping tickets to an Atlanta Braves game, a basketball game at Philips Arena, a WrestleMania event at the Dome and college football’s Chick-fil-A Bowl in 2009, among other events.
Most of those cases followed a familiar groove.
The court system dismissed the charges, recording that officers did not show up in court.
In only one of the cases did the court notify the police department about the no-shows.
And the police say the officers never received subpoenas.