published Friday, December 27th, 2013

Georgia state panel will not discipline area judge

A Chattooga County, Ga., judge who charged citizens illegal court costs will not be punished.

State Court Judge Sam Finster received a letter from the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission on Dec. 5 informing him that, despite breaking the law, he would not be disciplined. In the letter, JQC Commissioner Jeff Davis praised Finster's "willingness to correct these oversights."

From 2009 through September of this year, with Finster on the bench, 152 defendants paid $36,504 in Chattooga County State Court for cases that were "nolle prossed," or not prosecuted, records show. Finster told the Times Free Press in August that he often allowed this to happen in court.

He said it was the right thing to do. He said a victim would call police to the scene of an alleged crime, and an officer would respond and make an arrest, and then months later the victim would experience a change of heart and decline to help the prosecution.

The police investigation costs money, Finster said. Taxpayer money. Charging this court cost was a way to get some of that back.

But such a practice is illegal. According to state law, a court cannot make defendants pay money on cases unless those defendants are found guilty. Finster said he did not know his actions were against the law until a reporter informed him.

On Dec. 5, Davis told Finster he wanted to provide him with a "letter of instruction regarding your handling of these matters in the future."

"Although the commission understands that your intent was to approve a disposition which would be acceptable to both the defendant and the state," Davis wrote, "this cost was not a legal means to accomplish this goal."

Davis added that the JQC would not discipline Finster because the judge showed he wanted to correct his past mistakes. Earlier this month, Chattooga County State Court Clerk Sam Cordle sent a letter from Finster to defendants offering them their money back.

Finster was not the only judge in Chattooga County to charge this cost. Before Finster, judges Carlton Vines and Jerry Westbrook often did the same thing in state court, together charging about $18,000.

"Public confidence in the judiciary depends upon judges following appropriate procedures and ensuring that all participants in the judicial system are afforded due process of law and are only assessed that which the law specifically authorizes," Davis wrote to Finster. "We sincerely appreciate your candor and willingness to ensure that such confidence in the Chattooga County State Court continues."

Davis and other members of the JQC are not allowed to talk about investigations unless that investigation led to public discipline. Finster, meanwhile, did not return several calls seeking comment this week.

On Monday, the Times Free Press ran a report about a similar practice taking place in Walker County State Court. Judge Billy Mullinax did not respond to a request for comment.

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

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