Judge says opponent's Dalton 'jail fee' is illegal

photo In this file photo, Municipal Court Judge Jim Wilbanks questions an inmate during a hearing at Dalton's Correctional Center in 2003.

A North Georgia judge up for re-election says his opponent is breaking the law by forcing citizens to give the city government thousands of dollars in extra money.

David Blevins, a Superior Court judge in Whitfield and Murray counties, says Dalton Municipal Court Judge Jim Wilbanks is "double dipping," charging criminal defendants the same fee twice.

Wilbanks did not return multiple calls and emails Friday seeking comment about the jail fee.

When people are found guilty, Wilbanks and other judges can fine them and tack on additional costs. Those go toward specific funds to help crime victims, benefit the city's library or help other defendants who can't afford attorneys.

Sometimes, defendants pay a "jail fund" that covers part of the Whitfield County Jail's operating costs. According to Georgia law, this additional cost cannot exceed 10 percent of the defendant's fine.

For example, if a defendant is found guilty of underage possession of alcohol and pays a $500 fine, Wilbanks can charge him or her an extra $50 for the jail fund.

However, a Times Free Press analysis shows that Wilbanks sometimes orders defendants to pay a "jail fee" in addition to the "jail fund." As a result, these defendants pay more than the 10 percent extra cost allowed by law.

When Dalton police arrest somebody, the city pays Whitfield County $52.80 for every night the defendant stays in jail. A Dalton Municipal Court clerk said Friday that the "jail fee" covers this cost. Essentially, the defendant is paying the county for his night behind bars.

According to a document showing which defendants paid the court in April and May, 48 people gave the city of Dalton about $2,600 for the "jail fund" and about $3,500 for the "jail fee." Blevins, Wilbanks' opponent, said the "jail fee" is illegal.

Blevins also pointed out this is the second time Wilbanks has received negative attention for his practices on the bench. In 2011, a former municipal court judge revealed that Wilbanks put 1,800 people in jail for "contempt of probation," a criminal charge that does not exist.

"At the very least," Blevins said, "it shows a pattern of not being careful to follow the law."

In a three-man Superior Court judge election on May 20, Wilbanks received about 41 percent of the vote and Blevins received about 38 percent. Because no candidate got more than half the votes, Wilbanks and Blevins will compete in a run-off election July 22.

The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a lawsuit in 2006 for similar issues in Clinch County, Ga. There, a sheriff charged people "room and board" fees for their time in jail, even though a jury had not yet convicted them.

Sarah Geraghty, one of the SCHR attorneys on the case, argued that the sheriff has no legal authority to charge defendants for their night in jail. The SCHR and county officials settled out of court; the sheriff stopped charging the "room and board" fee, and county officials paid about $27,000 to reimburse everyone who had paid the fee.

Geraghty said that extra charge violated the due process clause of defendants' constitutional rights.

In Dalton, she said, a "jail fund" is allowed because state law specifically permits it. But a "jail fee" is not.

"The Legislature has seen fit to permit courts to charge for the cost of jail upkeep," she said. "They've done that through a particular statute. ... But the court in Dalton has gone above and beyond that."

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

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