A southwest Georgia county has been collecting unauthorized court costs from hundreds of criminal defendants, many of whom could not afford to hire their own lawyers, a federal lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit seeks to stop Grady County State Court from collecting “administrative costs” from defendants. In 2011 and 2012, the county collected almost $297,000 from about 540 defendants when it had no legal basis to do so, the suit said.
The suit, filed by lawyers for the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, seeks class-action status on behalf of all defendants who paid the excess fees. Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney for the Southern Center, said her office is also investigating to see if other courts in Georgia impose unauthorized court costs on defendants.
The Grady County lawsuit comes months after Grady State Court Judge William Bass was suspended for 60 days without pay and publicly reprimanded by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Among the commission’s findings: Bass assessed unauthorized costs to defendants and sought a raise in pay based on the amount of money he brought in to the county.
Roberta Imogene Jones, the lead plaintiff in the Grady County case, works nights at a chicken processing plant. In July 2012, while representing herself, Jones pleaded guilty to driving under the influence.
Bass sentenced Jones to one year on probation, with monthly fees of $44, and imposed a $300 fine. Bass also ordered Jones to pay $700 in administrative costs to the county, the suit said.
The lawsuit said Bass has often required defendants to pay $700 to $800 in administrative costs. The costs are assessed for the purpose of bringing in revenue for the county, the suit said.
“Courts should operate with the highest standard of integrity, but here we have government officials stepping outside the law and treating a court of justice like a money-making scheme,” Geraghty said. “Grady County has no right to this money and should return it.”
Grady County received the lawsuit Wednesday, county attorney, Kevin Cauley, said. “We have not had a chance to review the complaint yet but will respond to the action in due course.”