At least 1,800 criminal cases have been dismissed in Fulton County’s Magistrate Court since 2010 because police officers failed to show up in court despite being subpoenaed to testify, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.
The newspaper also found that court officials don’t notify police departments when officers miss court, and prosecutors do so in only a fraction of cases. As a result, the Atlanta Police Department rarely disciplines officers who repeatedly miss court dates.
That doesn’t mean prosecutors never blow the whistle.
“If [the officer] does not intend to appear in court then he might as well stop making arrests,” an assistant county solicitor wrote to the APD in 2011, after an officer missed four hearings in a few weeks.
Although the newspaper’s investigation points to major administrative failings, the greatest impact of these dismissed cases is on the victims of crimes that are not prosecuted. The magistrate court handles misdemeanors, but many of these cases involve incidents with people who have been beaten, fondled, punched, kicked and bloodied, according to police reports.
Jonesboro resident SeAndra Hardy was knocked unconscious and her 7-year-old son suffered a deep gash on his head when she crashed into a motorist who pulled in front of her vehicle in 2009. Charges against that motorist, who fled the scene, were dismissed because the investigating officer didn’t show up in court.
“That makes me sad for the court system,” Hardy, 38, said. “He injured my son badly and all of us could have been killed in that accident … He could go out there, he could injure someone else and then the police don’t show up [in court]. It’s all well, fine and dandy for [the police], and they ain’t got nothing to do with it no more. He can get off scot free.”
The AJC focused on the Fulton’s magistrate court because of a tip that officers frequently missed hearings. It’s also one of the only courts in metro Atlanta that keeps a record of officers’ failure to appear. The superior courts in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett, which handle the most serious crimes, do not track no-shows.
Though most couldn’t provide numbers, magistrate courts in neighboring counties aren’t dealing with nearly as many officer no-show dismissals, court officials say. In Gwinnett, the court administrator called such cases “quite rare.” And in Cobb, just 13 cases have been dismissed during the past five years because officers failed to appear, the chief magistrate judge said.
‘There’s so much apathy, it’s amazing’
The AJC examined three years worth of paper records from Fulton’s magistrate court — more than 5,000 pages — and several databases to determine how many cases were dismissed because officers missed court, whether the police were notified and what the department did about it.
And the problem of officer no-shows in court is even worse than public records reflect. The AJC found numerous instances in which dismissed cases were not classified accurately on court calendars.
“It’s very common,” attorney Ashleigh Merchant, a former Fulton public defender, said of officers missing court. “Fulton County is notorious for not having officers show up … There’s so much apathy, it’s amazing.”
The newspaper’s findings depict a disjointed criminal justice system in which the police, prosecutors and judges – all of whom need each other to serve the public – aren’t working in tandem, and no one takes responsibility. Court staffers say it’s not their job to corral cops; the solicitor’s office only sparingly notifies the police when officers skip court; and the police say they can’t do anything about it if no one tells them.
The cycle has consequences beyond the victims who don’t receive justice: Taxpayers front the cost of housing people in jail for cases that disappear into the ether. Fines aren’t collected. And defendants get off free and clear, sometimes repeatedly. The AJC found dozens of people for whom multiple cases were dismissed over the past three years because police didn’t show up in court, some as many as three or four different cases.
Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, who’s been in the position since January 2010, told the AJC that he “did not recognize that there was a major issue that you just described.”
“It makes no sense for us to book cases that we don’t follow through with the process,” he said. “I want to get it corrected. But I can’t correct it if I’m not notified.”
Fulton County Solicitor Carmen Smith said it’s not standard procedure in her office to inform police when officers fail to appear. “We go on to the next case,” she said. “If there’s some reason to let them know, we let them know.”
‘Let him know what he did to my son’
The screams of her teenage daughter lured SeAndra Hardy from unconsciousness.
“He’s bleeding!” her daughter kept yelling. “He’s bleeding and it’s bad!”
Hardy shook off the daze. She looked in the backseat of the car that had just been totaled.
Her son, Jaquavian, then 7, had a deep cut on his forehead. Blood streamed down his face.
It had been a special day for Hardy. Not only was it Christmas Eve 2009, but it was her and her teenage daughter’s birthday. She and four of her children had just left her father’s house and were heading to her sister’s to celebrate the holiday.
“We were going to exchange gifts and stay over there until Christmas and go home,” said Hardy, who works as a security guard.
Instead, the children were taken to a local hospital with minor injuries. Jaquavian needed 15 to 20 stitches, Hardy said.
The man who allegedly hit Hardy’s car did not stop to help her family, according to the police report. Instead, he drove off on a flat tire. Police arrested him soon after on a hit-and-run charge.
On Jan. 4, 2010, Fulton County police Officer Damani Williams was supposed to appear in court to testify in the case. His department had been given the subpoena on Dec. 29. But Williams didn’t make it, and the case was dismissed.
Records indicate that Williams, who declined comment through a police spokeswoman, contended he did not receive the subpoena until after hours on the day of the court hearing.
Hardy had no idea the case was dismissed.
“I don’t like the fact that they can dismiss a case without even letting me know they’re dismissing the case,” she said. “Or let me get a chance to go to the courtroom and testify against this person – or see this person face to face – to let him know what he did to my son.”
Sergeant: ‘I forgot to attend court’
The newspaper’s investigation centered on cases that go through the magistrate “all-purpose” court, which handles preliminary hearings for misdemeanor cases.
Most cases stem from arrests or citations made by Atlanta police officers, though police from other jurisdictions in Fulton County also testify there.
Officials in Magistrate Court began tracking officer no-show dismissals late in 2009, records show. “We knew that there was a problem, which is why we started keeping track,” Chief Magistrate Judge Stephanie Davis said.
Davis acknowledged that court officials have not formally addressed this matter with the police department. But she also noted that fewer officers are missing court these days. In 2012, at least 479 cases were dismissed due to officers not attending court, compared to at least 668 in 2011 and 606 in 2010.
However, the judge said, “There’s still a lot of cases being dismissed. We still have too many.”
Atlanta police Detective Ken Allen, the department’s union president, said he can’t defend officers who missed court when they have plenty of notice.
But Allen said officers often get subpoenas late or even after the court hearing, despite the fact that the subpoenas had been delivered to the police department a week or more earlier.
“Getting the last-minute stuff is what makes it frustrating,” said Allen, a burglary detective.
Allen said it’s difficult for officers to get a last-minute subpoena for a court hearing that conflicts, for example, with a part-time job or the duties of being a parent.
“There are times that you have to take your daughter and go to court,” Allen said.
Allen also said attorneys are known for intentionally scheduling court dates on officers’ off days, or repeatedly rescheduling hearings in the hopes that an officer won’t make court.
When Atlanta police officers receive a “failure to appear” complaint, they fill out a form explaining why they missed court. (Valid excuse or not, the officer must notify the court before the hearing to get it rescheduled.) According to the AJC’s review of dozens of such forms, the reasons range from the legitimate — the officer was recovering from an on-the-job injury — to the lame — it slipped the officer’s mind.
“I forgot to attend court and I did not notify the court,” one sergeant wrote in April.
Judge Davis said the “real cost” of these dismissed cases to the public is inmates sitting in jail for days or weeks, only for their cases be dismissed.
In the AJC’s analysis, about 40 percent of the defendants remained in jail for about two weeks until their preliminary hearing. And it costs $87 a day to house inmates at the Fulton County Jail, according to a jail spokeswoman.
There’s also the issue of uncollected fines. The 1,800 cases that got dismissed could have potentially generated more than $1 million in fine revenue, said Michael Shapiro, clinical instructor of criminal justice at Georgia State University’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.
“State courts generally tend to be revenue makers,” Shapiro said.
People found guilty in state court typically face fines of up to $1,000, plus court fees, Shapiro said.
It’s not clear what percentage of Magistrate Court cases are getting dismissed due to officer no-shows; Fulton couldn’t provide the total number of cases its court handles each year.
But Cobb County Magistrate Court’s 13 dismissals help put Fulton’s 1,800 in perspective. Cobb’s Chief Magistrate Judge, Frank Cox, said the court once had a problem with officers not attending court.
Beginning around 2005, officials became more careful to subpoena officers well in advance of court hearings, they began notifying the police chief of any officer no-shows and police brass emphasized to officers that missing court was not acceptable.
‘We are a neutral party’
During a 16-month stretch, in 2010 and 2011, Atlanta police investigator Michael Wiskemann had at least nine cases tossed out for his failure to appear, court records show. Most involved battery charges.
Wiskemann, now working the midnight patrol shift in southeast Atlanta, was the subject of the prosecutor’s letter in 2011 suggesting that he stop making arrests if he wasn’t going to attend court.
But the scathing letter didn’t affect his career. The retired Navy helicopter mechanic was promoted to sergeant two months later, in June 2011.
He’s one of of a handful of police officers, most of them with Atlanta police, who had the greatest number of officer-no-show dismissals in Magistrate Court, generally between 8 and 10 cases.
Atlanta police directed Wiskemann and other officers identified in this story not to comment.
Wiskemann received an “oral admonishment” for missing court. The other no-show dismissals attributed to him in the solicitor’s letter were not investigated by internal affairs officers. Atlanta police couldn’t explain why. In fact, none of Wiskemann’s other no-shows were.
Likewise, the AJC found, most of the magistrate court’s officer no-shows have not been investigated by the Atlanta police.
Chief Turner said it’s impossible for him to correct a problem if he doesn’t know it exists.
Of the 1,800 dismissed cases documented by the AJC since January 2010 — most of which are Atlanta police cases — the police received complaints for fewer than 10 percent. The magistrate court has only sent one complaint in the past eight months, and court officials don’t consider such notifications to be their responsibility.
“I don’t think that my staff should be notifying police departments when officers fail to show up in court,” Cicely Barber, court administrator for Fulton’s magistrate court, wrote in an email. “My staff’s responsibility is to make sure that the paperwork is processed. We are a neutral party. We do not work for the prosecuting authority, the defendants, nor any law enforcement agency.”
When Atlanta police do find that an officer inappropriately missed court, the department disciplines the officer with an “oral admonishment” about 80 percent of the time, an AJC analysis shows. The rest are mostly written reprimands.
Turner, however, noted that disciplinary actions escalate each time an officer misses court within a certain time frame. So if his department were made aware of all the no-shows, officers who miss court repeatedly would face stiffer punishments.
DNOIC: dismissed — no officer in court
On a recent day in the Magistrate Court, people file into Courtroom #1A. There’s the man who will soon be snoring in his pew, the woman with red-dyed hair eating Doritos for breakfast and the young attorney wearing a Carolina blue bow tie.
Defendants — whether they’re escorted from jail or find their own way — have to show up before 9 a.m. Court usually runs until lunch.
Most of the people in the room, from defendants to police, would rather be somewhere else. Cops sit in the jury box, rubbing their eyes, pecking at their phones or leaning on their hands. One struggles to keep his eyes open.
It doesn’t take long for the first officer-no-show dismissal.
The defendant faces charges of eluding police, pointing a pistol at another person and battery.
He will be one of four defendants on this day whose charges are “DNOIC’d” — dismissed, no officer in court.
Two Atlanta police officers were subpoenaed to testify in the case. Neither is here. One officer no longer works for the department. The other is Investigator Bridgette Porter. Not including this case, she has had 10 such cases dismissed in Magistrate Court since January 2010, court records show.
Judge Davis wastes little time. Once she confirms that both officers were subpoenaed and neither is in the courtroom, she utters a practiced phrase: “It’s dismissed — no officer in court.”
‘The department must do a better job’
Some subpoenas that have been served at the Atlanta Police Department inexplicably haven’t found their way to the officers who need them to attend court, the AJC has found.
“What is clear is that the department must do a better job, collectively, of tracking subpoenas and ensuring they get into the hand of the appropriate officers in a timely manner,” Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos wrote in an email.
While reporting on criminal cases getting dismissed because officers fail to show in court, the AJC learned that more than two dozen complaints about officers failing to appear in Fulton County Magistrate Court did not prompt internal investigations.
The reason: Atlanta police supervisors had determined that the officers never received the subpoena or it was received too late.
However, the AJC found that most of those subpoenas were not only served, but they were served well in advance of the officers’ court hearings.
The AJC asked Atlanta police to review 27 such subpoena situations, and the police department largely reached the same conclusion. Police staff confirmed that 25 of the 27 subpoenas were received by the department with plenty of time to spare.
Campos said the breakdown in delivering subpoenas to officers appears to be occurring after the subpoenas have reached the specific police unit where the officers work. Once subpoenas are served at a central location, they are supposed to be picked up by police staff daily and delivered to the officers.
“The units are receiving the subpoenas in a timely fashion,” Campos wrote. “It seems where we apparently need improvement is in getting them into the hands of officers.”