The Municipal Court Public Defender’s Office is charged with the responsibility of representing indigent defendants who are accused of violating any city ordinance for which a criminal penalty can be imposed, as well as certain misdemeanors that the court has concurrent jurisdiction with the State Court of Fulton County. This office currently has 12 Assistant Public Defenders who are assigned to all Municipal courtrooms on a daily basis. It is projected that these attorneys will manage a caseload of approximately 900 cases each for this year. A description of the type of cases and work involved is as follows:
- General City Ordinance Violations: There are numerous ordinance violations that prohibit certain defined conduct for which a criminal penalty of up to a $1,000.00 fine and/or six months in jail can be imposed. When this office is appointed to represent a client facing these charges it is our duty to conduct an exhaustive interview with the client in order to gather all of the facts and circumstances of a case, leading either to his guilt or innocence. The attorney must conduct a proper investigation, evaluate all information applying the facts of the case to the law and then advise the client of his or her legal options. The types of cases that are handled by this office range from physical assaults on people, damage to or theft of property, drug offenses, weapons offenses, illicit sexual acts, housing code violations, environmental offenses, animal control issues, taxi cab violations and licensing and permits, etc. These cases can be complex in nature and require legal expertise not only in the area of criminal law but also in real property, probate, environmental and contract law. If a bench trial is requested by the client the attorney must interview and subpoena witnesses, conduct a thorough investigation of the case, file proper motions, research the law and prepare for a zealous defense. If a plea is negotiated with the prosecutor the defense attorney is still ethically obligated to first properly evaluate the evidence in a case and discuss with the client all possible options.
- Domestic Violence: There are numerous ordinance violations that can arise out of what is defined as a domestic dispute between persons who are living together or have a familial relationship. It is the goal of the Municipal Court to address any underlying difficulties that exist between the parties so that such disputes do not continue to occur. It is the job of the Assistant Public Defender to evaluate all the facts and circumstances of the case and to determine whether the case should be tried before the judge or referred to counseling. In some instances it is the responsibility of the Public Defender to locate counseling alternatives, provide the details of the programs to the Court and advocate this option as an alternative to prosecution. If the case is referred to counseling the Assistant Public Defender is responsible for following the progress of the client and continuing to appear in court on behalf of the client until the case is finally adjudicated.
- Housing Code Violations: The Housing Code provides for the identification and prosecution of individuals who may be in violation of housing regulations promulgated by the City of Atlanta. Charges range from dumping or storing trash or junk on the exterior of homes or properties to not maintaining safe and sanitary living conditions on the interior of properties. Representing an indigent individual who is charged with housing code violations requires a working knowledge of real property law in that ownership and title issues may be involved. It also requires a competent knowledge of probate issues wherein properties may be inherited by clients or others who do not claim any ownership interest in the properties at issue. It also requires the attorney be versed in contract law wherein disputes can arise concerning the clients’ efforts to correct code violations on their properties. Finally, the attorney must be knowledgeable regarding foreclosure issues, including the right of redemption laws and laws of statutory repose. Handling a housing code violations case can require title searches and many hours of investigation to determine proper owners. The attorney must also visit the property in question, interview code enforcement officers to evaluate the alleged violations and then seek out structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing advice when alleged violations are disputed. Once a legal analysis of the case is completed it is the responsibility of the attorney to prepare for trial or assist the client with correcting the alleged violations. The attorney contacts community organizations and private companies who can possibly assist clients with bringing their property into compliance. These agencies are approached for help in making repairs, cleaning, providing materials and labor to correct violations. Additionally, many clients in housing court are senior citizens that have mental health issues and physical limitations and disabilities that may be a contributing factor to the cited violations. With regard to the elderly, attorneys work with outside agencies that offer specific services for senior citizens, such as social security, Medicaid and Medicare. If any of these contributing factors are identified the attorney also seeks assistance with addressing these concerns as well in order to avoid future allegations of code violations.
- Quality of Life Crimes: The Atlanta Community Court is a division of the Atlanta Municipal Court that deals with quality of life crimes, such as prostitution, disorderly conduct (charges that mirror State misdemeanor offenses), panhandling, idling and loitering for illicit sexual acts, and low-level drug offenses. The Court is committed to the dual principles of restorative justice; the idea that offenders should be held accountable to the community that has been negatively affected by criminal conduct, and rehabilitation of the offender so that the community does not continue to suffer from his or her conduct. The Community Court uses alternative sentencing options such as community service in local neighborhoods with the idea that the community is visibly compensated for the criminal conduct that contributes to neighborhood decay. In addition, the Community Court uses other sentencing alternatives that are designed to curb future criminal behavior. For example, when mental illness and/or substance abuse is identified as a driving factor in an individual’s antisocial or criminal behavior, that person is often diverted from incarceration to appropriate treatment resources under the supervision of the Court. The Court takes a supervisory roll in the offenders’ treatment plans through frequent review hearings, assertive case coordination, and when necessary, tough sanctions for non-compliance. The Public Defender plays a key role in this Court by identifying clients who may benefit from the services offered and advocating for these clients in court. The Public Defender must wear two different hats in this courtroom, one as that of a defense attorney representing his client zealously on the issues before the court, and the other as that of a counselor concerned about the underlying issues that brought the client before the court in the first place. The public defender works diligently to protect the rights of his client and at the same time, works with members of the Community Court to resolve those underlying issues in an attempt to reduce recidivism.
- Probation: In lieu of incarceration the judge may sentence a defendant to a probated sentence wherein he or she is placed on probation and monitored for a defined period of time. The defendant is responsible for complying with certain terms and conditions of the probation and if he or she does not comply they are subject to a revocation of the probation sentence and ordered to serve time in jail. It is the responsibility of this office to represent clients who are charged with violating the terms and conditions of their probation. These charges must be approached like any other criminal offense in that the attorney is required to conduct a thorough investigation of the alleged violations, prepare for an adversarial hearing before the Court and zealously argue that the client has not violated the terms of probation or seek alternatives to incarceration.
- Appeals: If a person is found guilty by the Municipal Court on any charge within its jurisdiction that person is entitled to appeal his or her case to the Superior Court for review as a matter of right. This office represents not only former clients on appeal but also other individuals who may have represented themselves or had other counsel at trial, which meet the indigency requirements for appellate counsel. The statutory procedures for appealing a case require specialized expertise and knowledge of the appellate laws. The appellate attorney is required to evaluate the trial of cases and identify all potential issues for appeal. In some cases, the prosecutor and judge agree that errors were committed, in which event the appellate attorney can obtain post conviction relief in the trial court. However, if the parties do not agree as to the alleged errors then the appellate attorney must prepare a Petition for Writ of Certiorari and a Brief in Support of the Petition to be filed with the Superior Court. The attorney must then maneuver through a complex and hazardous legal minefield where one missed step can result in a dismissal of the appeal and subsequent claim of malpractice. Furthermore, if the attorney does not prevail in the Superior Court, he may file an application for discretionary appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals. If the issue in the case is the constitutionality of an ordinance then the application for discretionary appeal is to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
City of Atlanta
Public Defenders Office
The Lenwood A. Jackson, Jr. Justice Center
150 Garnett Street, SW
Atlanta, Georgia 30303