published Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Chattooga County State Court offers money back to Georgia defendants

More than 250 Georgia defendants who were told to pay a total of $55,574 in court costs in Chattooga County State Court between 2007 and September now can get their cash back.

Court Clerk Sam Cordle said his office sent letters last week to defendants who paid court costs in cases in which they were not found guilty, a practice that is illegal.

State Court Judge Sam Finster admitted to the Times Free Press that he and Solicitor Sanford "Buddy" Hill charged those costs on cases that were "nolle prosequi," or not prosecuted. But, 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. Finster said he did not know such a practice was illegal until talking to a reporter in August.

Court files show three other judges also presided in state court at times when defendants paid those illegal costs: Kristina Cook Graham, Carlton Vines and Jerry Westbrook.

Cordle's office sent the letter to all 261 affected defendants on Friday. But court employees don't know where all those defendants now live. Some may have moved, and the letters may go to people who have never even been to court.

Before getting any money back, former defendants will have to fill out a claim form that shows when they were arrested, the charge filed against them, how much money they paid to the court, and when they paid that money.

Koran Tirai Dyer, 22, of 609 N. Duke St. in LaFayette, said Monday he is unsure whether he is going to apply to get his money back. A Summerville Police Department officer arrested Dyer on charges of affray (fighting) in June, and in September he paid $1,000 in court costs for a case that was not prosecuted.

Dyer says he should not have been arrested. He says he just happened to be nearby when a fight broke out. But at the courthouse in September, Summerville police Captain Harold Tucker told Dyer that Finster would find him guilty unless he paid the court cost.

At the time, Dyer says, he didn't know the cost was illegal, and the payment still affects him. He fell behind on school bills, loans and child support payments.

Since a Times Free Press article exposed the practice, Dyer said, he has been talking with a lawyer from the Southern Center for Human Rights. He said this week that, rather than asking for his money back, he is considering other options.

"I don't feel like they've learned their lesson," Dyer said. "You're taking advantage of people who don't really have much."

Finster first mentioned returning money to defendants in October. At the time, he said defendants would have three options: Enter a pretrial diversion program, advise the county to keep the money, or ask for their money back.

If they asked for their money back, Finster said at the time, defendants might have to return to court on their original charge. Though the cases were not prosecuted, they also were not dismissed. A prosecutor can revisit the case, assuming the statute of limitations has not expired.

The letter sent to defendants Friday does not mention all of these options. It merely states that if a defendant wants money back, he or she should fill out the claim form. Finster declined to comment, but Cordle said the court won't bring defendants back to court if they ask for their money.

"When he found out that it was wrong to do that," Cordle said, "he decided to just give it back."

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

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