published Sunday, September 15th, 2013

Human rights group probes Chattooga court practice

Cierra Nicole Jachimiak does not know why she had to give the clerk $700. Not exactly.

Jachimiak, 17, stood outside the Chattooga County Courthouse on Aug. 5. About three months earlier, a police officer had pulled her over near Mahan Road. Her learner's permit had expired in January, and the officer arrested her.

Jachimiak said her mother hired defense attorney A. Holley Strawn to help her through the case. A senior at Chattooga County High School, Jachimiak hopes to go to the University of Georgia next year. She just wanted the case behind her.

So, on Aug. 5, Jachimiak waited in the hallway. She said Strawn was inside the courtroom, though Jachimiak doesn't know what her attorney did or who she talked to. All she knows is this: Eventually, Strawn walked out and told her the case would cost $700.

Jachimiak wrote down the desired amount, handed the check to Strawn and watched her attorney walk back in.

"She did everything for me," Jachimiak said. "She went in and out of the courthouse. I didn't even have to step foot in the courthouse."

According to records, Chattooga County State Solicitor Sanford "Buddy" Hill then recommended to Judge Sam Finster that the case be "nolle prossed," or not prosecuted. The decision is not a dismissal of the case, though in practice a nolle prosequi and a dismissal are essentially the same.

But Hill's and Finster's decision was illegal. According to Georgia law, a state solicitor cannot charge a defendant court costs if the case has been dismissed. The Southern Center for Human Rights last week filed records requests seeking information on the practice.

Jachimiak did not know her lawyer's recommendation was against the law.

"I honestly didn't care," she said. "I just wanted everything dropped."

If convicted of driving on an expired learner's permit, Jachimiak could have gone to jail on a misdemeanor charge for between two days and one year, according to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 40-5-121. Finster also could have charged a fine between $500-$1,000.

Strawn did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Jachimiak is not alone. On Aug. 5 and 6, six defendants in Chattooga County State Court paid court costs on cases that were not prosecuted. When a Times Free Press reporter asked Finster and Hill about this practice two weeks later, both said they had been charging money on nolle prossed cases for years.

Finster said he didn't know this practice was illegal. He later said he stopped demanding these court costs after the newspaper informed him Aug. 19 that doing so is against the law. But Sept. 9, a defendant paid the court $1,000 for an unprosecuted charge of "affray," or public fighting.

Before learning the transactions were illegal, Hill said he and Finster charged costs for nolle prossed cases, in part, because it could help a defendant. If someone like Jachimiak is convicted of a traffic offense, she might have to pay more than $700. Plus, the offense would stay on her record, driving up the cost of her auto insurance.

James McCarty, 45, of LaFayette, is another defendant who had to pay money on a case that was not prosecuted. Like Jachimiak, he said the cost itself -- for him, $270 -- was not a big deal.

But he is angry about the principle of the matter: Charging people when it's not allowed.

"It's just kind of a rinky-dink court thing," he said. "You scratch their back; they scratch yours. They're all buddies."

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

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