Georgia city ends fees for people who drop abuse allegations

A Georgia city has agreed to stop making alleged victims in domestic violence cases pay fees when they decline to participate in prosecutions.

The city of Columbus also agreed to repay $41,844 in fees and damages for the 101 people it charged when they decided not to press charges against their alleged abusers.

Federal Judge Clay Land approved these terms in a class action settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights in October 2016 against the city of Columbus, a local judge and several law enforcement officers.

The suit was filed on behalf of Cleopatra Harrison, who was 22 in June 2016 when she called 911 to report abuse. Officers took her statement, observed her injuries, arrested her boyfriend and told her to appear in court, the lawsuit says.

In court, Harrison confirmed an officer's account of what had happened, but told Columbus Recorder's Court Chief Judge Michael Cielinski she didn't want to press charges.

Cielinski then told her she owed a $150 "victim assessment" fee for the time city police spent on her case. She was warned that a warrant for her arrest would be issued if she failed to pay within a week.

The Southern Center said Thursday that Harrison is one of many women who appeared in the court as the victim of a crime, only to leave owing money.

"This was an archaic law that was being used by the court to punish and intimidate victims of domestic violence," Southern Center managing attorney Sarah Geraghty said in an emailed statement. "To the City's great credit, it did not defend the ordinance, but repealed it and agreed to compensate those who were forced to pay so-called victim fees."

Of the 101 people made to pay these fees, 34 responded to the class notice; those who agreed to the settlement will get their money back along with $969 each in damages.

"We reaffirm our commitment to fair and impartial treatment of individuals coming before the Recorder's Court in Columbus, particularly those persons who may have been victims of domestic abuse," City Attorney Clifton Fay said Thursday in an emailed statement.