A Surreptitious Courtroom Video Prompts Changes in a Georgia Town

New York Times – by Shaila Dewan

An explosion of cellphone videos has brought renewed attention to police practices, provoking criticism, indictments and talk of criminal justice overhaul. Courtroom videos of judges in action, however, are far rarer.

But one surreptitious video in a small-town Georgia court has led to an overhaul of court practices there. The video showed the judge threatening to jail traffic violators who could not come up with an immediate payment toward their fines.  

“You can pay what you have, you can call whoever you need to call, go to an A.T.M. if you need to, do what you need to do,” Judge Richard A. Diment of Bowdon Municipal Court said to one defendant. “Call friends, call family, call your employer. But until you get $300 here tonight, you won’t be able to leave.” The defendant said she had recently begun working at a supermarket and had $150 with her.

To another defendant, a man who said he had been unemployed for two years and received food stamps, Judge Diment said: “You’re going to have to figure out a way to get this paid, do you understand me? Or you’re going to go to jail. One or the other. You understand?”

Neither defendant had a lawyer.

The United States Supreme Court has held that people cannot be jailed for failing to make a payment if they are unable to pay, but advocates for indigent defendants say that in many jurisdictions, meaningful assessments of ability to pay are rare. In Georgia, poor defendants are supposed to have access to a court-appointed lawyer if they face jail or probation.

Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights, an Atlanta-based group that has been fighting what it calls “debtors’ prison” cases throughout Georgia, said Bowdon was unique only in that Judge Diment’s practices were caught on video.

“The practice that we see here is one that happens in courts around the state, and it shows an overzealousness to collect fines and fees at the expense of basic fairness,” she said.

The center sent observers to Judge Diment’s monthly court sessions this summer after it was alerted to the video, taken in February 2014 and later posted on YouTube. This June, the observers said in a complaint letter to the city, Judge Diment demanded immediate payments ranging from $20 to more than $1,000. One woman, on probation for driving with a suspended license, had already spent a month in jail but was ordered to remain incarcerated until she made a $500 payment, the letter said.

In July, a man who said he worked only a few days every other week asked to convert his court debt to community service. Judge Diment refused, the letter said, on the grounds that the man might find a better job.

In response to the complaint, the city agreed to a host of changes set out in an order signed by Judge Diment, including advising defendants of their right to counsel before they enter a plea and abolishing the practice of requiring an immediate payment under threat of jail. If violators do not eventually pay fines, the court must establish that the failure is willful, and not a result of poverty, before jailing them. The city also agreed to stop requiring defendants to ask friends and family to pay their fines.

Judge Diment, who in private practice is a real estate lawyer in nearby Carrollton, did not respond to a request for comment.

A lawyer for the city, C. David Mecklin Jr., wrote in a letter to the center last week that “it is the specific intent of the city to comply not only with the letter, but the spirit, of the policies set forth in Judge Diment’s order.”

Reached by phone, Mr. Mecklin said the changes were also in response to a new state law designed to encourage better assessment of people’s ability to pay and to curb fees charged to violators by private probation companies. The new law went into effect on July 1.

Aggressive levying of fines and fees, backed up by the threat of incarceration, was identified as a source of the frustration that led to days of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after a white police officer killed an unarmed black man last year. Ferguson relied on court fines and fees to supply a fifth of its budget.

By contrast, Bowdon, a city of about 2,000 near the Alabama border, relied on court fines and fees for 3.8 percent of its revenue in 2013, the most recent data made public by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. That is well below the average, 11.5 percent, for Georgia cities of similar size.

But the woman who shot the video, Mila Hentzien, 31, said she was appalled by what she saw in court, where she had gone to contest citations for, among other things, keeping a miniature pony in her yard. “I had noticed that they had inmates there that they were asking for money,” she said in a phone interview. “How can you be incarcerated and have any money?”

“I knew something was illegal about it, you know?” she said.

She added that she had seen a woman with a small child threatened with being sent immediately to jail unless she paid $320. “I almost pulled the money out of my pocket to give it to her — that’s how bad it was,” she said.

After she posted the initial video, Ms. Hentzien said, she and her daughter were caught videotaping at another court date, and their phones were taken and the new videos were deleted on the spot.

Ms. Hentzien said she had been recording the proceedings in part because the court had not responded to her repeated requests for transcripts. The Southern Center for Human Rights was also unable to obtain court recordings or transcripts, though the court is required by law to keep them. Under the new order, the court agreed to keep records of its proceedings.

Videos of court proceedings are rare because they are either expressly prohibited, or cellphone use is barred in courtrooms. In July, the Georgia Council of Superior Court Judges adopted a new rule, pending approval by the state Supreme Court, barring anyone from recording court proceedings without requesting permission 24 hours in advance.


7 thoughts on “A Surreptitious Courtroom Video Prompts Changes in a Georgia Town

  1. I see they are serving the public. This is all the assholes do is suck money out of us off there unconstitution bullshit. This is not a common law court this a admired law court. That ass hole need to be shot for abusing the people

  2. This got me prepped to go In front of someone similar. We’ll see what happens. If I don’t post for a week you’ll know I’m in jail. Lol no seriously tho my “liscense” got asuhpendid. Scumbag judge.

  3. More proof it’s not what BS”law” you broke
    But how much money they can make off you
    Courts are just money extraction units out of cohersion, scare tactics , extortion , lies, and making it up as they go
    Look at how well all these people in our court systems live while we hardly can pay our bills
    When the curtain goes up in this country there should be names and addresses of all of these types dceminated to the Patriots to cleanse this country of these scum

  4. Everyone here knows what the courts are all about, but I’m glad their corruption is being exposed to the wider public.

    Too many Americans harbor the delusion that they’ll have a glimpse of justice there, and it’s just not the case. Too many episodes of “L.A. Law” and similar nonsense continues to keep Americans in the dark about the reality.

  5. LET IT BE KNOWN as of December 1, 2014, under the court decision of August 25, 2014 that convicted the United States Corporation and their officers of fraud, extortion, human trafficking, involuntary servitude, murder, high treason, and crimes against humanity, all corporate governmental, judicial and enforcement powers and authority are revoked and nullified and all such personnel are hereby ordered to immediately STAND DOWN.
    Any further corporate governmental intervention into any matter regarding any activity in any of the several states related to the Respublica of Earth, United States of America is now considered a Breach of the Peace.
    LET IT BE FURTHER KNOWN that anyone disregarding this ORDER is considered personally liable for acts leading criminality against the People and faces immediate arrest and detainment by the Court of Ages, Earth District Natural Law Peace Officers deputized by the Court which includes all militia and National Guard.
    http://www.courtofages dot com/usa-orders.html
    http://www.courtofages dot com/intl-orders.html
    http://www.courtofages dot com/documents.html

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