published Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Chattooga County judge once ruled in his cousin's DUI case

A Chattooga County State Court judge who for years charged illegal court payments also once presided over a case in which his cousin was on trial -- a violation of Georgia law.

Summerville police officer Jamie Mitchell arrested William Randall Finster in February and September of 2002 on charges of driving under the influence. In December of that year, Finster went to Municipal Court on both charges.

Finster pleaded guilty to DUI and speeding in the September arrest. But in the February case, in which police say Finster almost crashed into his own wife on Highway 114, Finster pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of reckless conduct, as recommended by Mitchell.

Mitchell, now a trooper with the Georgia State Patrol, did not return multiple requests for comment.

Municipal Court Judge Sam Finster accepted the plea. But according to Georgia Law, Finster was not allowed to be the judge in that case. According to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 15-1-8(a)(2), a judge must be disqualified from a case if that judge is related to an interested party within six degrees.

This week Sam Finster said William Finster is his first cousin, once removed.

Finster, who is still Summerville's Municipal Court judge, said that the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission knows about this offense, and that its members dismissed a complaint filed against him.

However, he declined to give the Times Free Press a copy of the ruling in the case. He also declined to give the newspaper permission to access the file from the JQC.

JQC Director Jeff Davis would not discuss details of the issue. Sometimes, the commission disciplines a judge privately. If that were the case, Davis would not be able to disclose any information without Finster's approval.

"We cannot confirm or deny the existence of a complaint unless there is public discipline," Davis said. "There has been no such discipline of Finster."

Former State Court Judge Carlton Vines said Tuesday that he filed a complaint with the JQC about those DUI cases in July 2012. Vines was Chattooga County's State Court judge until November 2007, when he was suspended for multiple reasons, including allegations of voter fraud in a previous election.

Finster, the runner-up in that election, replaced Vines. But he himself has run into trouble lately.

Last week, the Times Free Press revealed that from 2009 through this year, Finster allowed 154 cases to go unprosecuted in exchange for a total of about $37,000 in payments to the court -- a practice that is illegal in Georgia. In 2007-08, Vines allowed 53 defendants to pay $10,000 on cases that weren't prosecuted.

Sam Finster's decision in 2002 to let his cousin plead to a lesser offense affected how William Finster was disciplined. According to O.C.G.A. 40-5-63(a)(1), a person convicted of one DUI offense within five years has his driver's license suspended for one year -- though he can get it back after 120 days by completing a DUI program and paying a special fee.

Two convictions within five years warrants a three-year suspension, with the potential to get a license back after 18 months. A person with three convictions in five years is considered a habitual offender and receives a five-year license suspension.

That might have happened to William Finster. In May 2003, about five months after his court date for his first two arrests, Finster again was arrested on a DUI charge by a Summerville police officer. According to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation toxicology report, Finster's blood-alcohol content level was at 0.201, more than twice the legal limit.

That case did not go before Sam Finster. Instead, William Finster went to State Court, where the officer recommended the charges again be reduced to reckless conduct. William Finster pleaded guilty.

State Solicitor Albert Palmour accepted this plea. Today, he doesn't remember the details of the case. He said he didn't know William Finster was related to Sam Finster, and that it wouldn't have affected whether he accepted the reduced charge.

"I doubt I would have gone along if I had known about the other [DUI arrests] and I feel sure the court would not, as well," Palmour said. "So I guess I failed to obtain an accurate history."

Seven years later, William Finster once again drove drunk, according to court records. He cruised through a red light at the intersection of U.S. Highway 27 and Underwood Drive and crashed his Ford Taurus into a GMC Sierra. One witness said he was going about 80 mph. Mitchell, the officer in the 2002 DUI arrests, worked that case as well.

This time, William Finster pleaded guilty in Chattooga County Superior Court to two counts of serious injury by vehicle; reckless driving; disregarding a traffic control device and DUI. He was placed on 30 years' probation, according to court records, and ordered to pay $25,000 to the victim, Jimmy Earl Cleveland, who could not be reached for comment.

Then, on Sept. 21 of this year, William Finster was arrested by Trion police, again for DUI. He remained in jail on those charges Tuesday in lieu of a $2,045 bond.

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

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