Illegal court costs uncovered in Walker County

Illegal court costs uncovered in Walker County

December 23rd, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Billy Mullinax

Photo by Allison Love/Times Free Press.

LaFAYETTE, Ga. - Walker County's State Court judge has charged illegal court costs in more than 40 cases this year.

Judge Billy Mullinax has dismissed at least 47 cases after either the victim or the defendant paid the court costs, a practice that is illegal in Georgia. The specific amount of money paid changed from case to case, court records show, but usually Mullinax charged $138. In the 47 cases pulled from court files, defendants and victims paid the court $8,597.

But, according to Article 1, Section 1, Paragraph 14 of the Georgia Constitution, nobody can be forced to pay money in a criminal case unless that person has been convicted. And, according to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 15-13-35, a prosecutor cannot charge costs in a case if the court did not find the defendant guilty.

"Under Georgia law, courts cannot demand court costs of criminal defendants whose cases are nolle prossed [not prosecuted]," Sarah Geraghty, a senior attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the Times Free Press in September when the paper revealed similar tactics in the Chattooga County State Court. "The Georgia Constitution and Georgia Code expressly prohibit courts from collecting costs from a criminal defendant in the absence of the defendant's conviction."

Mullinax did not respond to a request for comment after a reporter visited his office and spoke with his assistant Friday. Bill Rhyne Jr., who has served as a temporary solicitor, or state court prosecutor this year while Pat Clements recovered from an illness, also declined to comment.

Compared with court officials in Chattooga County, Mullinax and Rhyne charged illegal court costs more often. But, on average, they also charged less money. In Chattooga County, the judge and solicitor charged $9,273 in illegal court costs on 36 cases.

But that changed after a Times Free Press reporter asked Chattooga State Court Judge Sam Finster about the practice. Finster admitted to charging the money but said he did not know the practice was forbidden. An article about the Chattooga custom ran in the Times Free Press on Sept. 12.

Mullinax and Rhyne stopped charging money on dismissed cases in mid-September. Of the 47 cases the newspaper found this year, none occurred after Sept. 7.

The cases the Times Free Press found in the court clerk's online database may not paint the full picture. The newspaper examined all cases dismissed from November 2012 through this month, though Mullinax may have dismissed other cases this year that were filed before November 2012. From the time of arrest, a criminal case can take months or years to conclude.

Most of the cases the newspaper found were domestic violence cases in which the victim did not wish to prosecute. In those cases, the victim paid the court $138 and Mullinax dismissed the case.

On Aug. 4, Jamie Raymond Dukes got arrested on a charge of battery. According to an arrest report, he grabbed a woman's hair, pulled her into the house, then pushed her back outside, off a porch.

Later, the woman said she did not want to participate in a prosecution of the case. She said in court records the arrest was the result of a "misunderstanding." She paid $138 and Dukes' case was dismissed Sept. 7.

Another state court case against Dukes was dismissed the same way in March.

On Friday, Dukes said he didn't know such a practice was illegal.

"I don't think very [well] of it at all," said Dukes, 47. "If people have to work hard for their money, they shouldn't have to give it away for something that wasn't charged to them anyway."

There were several other cases like Dukes' in Walker County State Court this year. A father and son got in a fight, and both men paid the court to get their respective cases dismissed. In another case, a man was arrested for hitting his father and brother. Both victims later paid the court, and the case was dismissed.

Some cases were not the result of domestic violence. On March 3, according to court records, Kyle Lisabeth, of Canton, was driving through Walker County with Alicia Torres Geary when a Georgia State Patrol officer stopped them for speeding.

The officer later said he smelled marijuana in the car, and he found a joint and a baggie of the drug. He charged both Lisabeth and Geary with possession of marijuana.

On June 10, Mullinax dismissed their cases. They each paid $860.50.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.