published Friday, October 25th, 2013

Chattooga officials charged $36,500 in illegal costs

In the last five years, Chattooga County State Court officials have charged people $36,504 in illegal court fines.

Since 2009, 152 defendants have paid the county for court costs in cases that were then nolle prossed, or not prosecuted, records show.

These figures emerged after State Court Judge Sam Finster asked a court employee to create a list of all the cases that had been nolle prossed upon the payment of costs, a practice that Finster allowed for years even though it is illegal. Finster said he requested this list about two weeks ago -- a month after the Times Free Press ran an article about the practice.

Clerk of Court Sam "Laan" Cordle said the employee who created the list had to comb through case files by hand.

"I can't promise you that this is all of [the cases]," Cordle said. "But it is certainly most of them."

According to Article 1, Section 1, Paragraph 14 of the Georgia Constitution, nobody can be forced to pay money in a criminal case unless he is 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.

But for years, state Solicitor Sanford "Buddy" Hill has agreed to "nolle prosequi" -- or decline to prosecute -- cases after defendants said they would pay the court costs that would have been charged had they been found guilty. Finster said he accepted this outcome until a Times Free Press reporter explained to him that the practice is illegal.

The money from those cases was treated as fines. Cordle said that some of it went to specific funds -- a prosecutor's fund, for example -- and the rest to the county's general fund.

On Thursday, Chattooga County Sole Commissioner Jason Winters said he had not seen the list of cases. He said he does not now have a plan for how to handle the past illegal payments.

But Finster said Hill proposed a plan earlier this week. He wants to send a letter to every defendant from these cases and give them three options.

First, the defendants can ask for their money back and have a jury trial on the offense. This would be allowed because a "nolle prosequi" is simply a solicitor's decision not to prosecute the case. Unlike a dismissal, a solicitor can change his mind and try the case at some point in the future.

The other choices would be for defendants to enter a pretrial diversion program or tell the county to keep the money and ignore the case.

Finster does not know when Hill will send these letters. He said they need to run the plan by County Attorney Chris Corbin before they go forward.

"We're going to do what's right, and we're going to give every defendant an opportunity to go to a jury trial," Finster said. "They had that right in the beginning. If Buddy does this, they'll still have that right."

Hill did not return calls seeking comment.

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

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