Atlanta municipal sentences of more than 6 months were illegal, city concedes

The City of Atlanta’s Municipal Courts only have jurisdiction over misdemeanor offenses and infractions, and it does not have the authority to hand down sentences of longer than six months. Nevertheless, ever since the court was established in 1996, judges have routinely handed down punishments that exceeded that authority, the city’s Solicitor’s Office admitted today.

The issue came to light when one criminal defense attorney questioned the authority of the court to sentence her client to 12 months’ probation for each of four misdemeanor counts — one count of marijuana possession and three counts of driving on a suspended license. Under the Municipal Court’s charter, probation and jail time are equivalent, and it did not appear that the court had the right to impose even 12 months of probation on her client.

To many people’s surprise, the Solicitor’s Office conceded the criminal defense lawyer’s point. According to Section 4-102, Article 5, of the Municipal Court charter, the maximum sentence the court has the authority to impose is a fine of up to $1,000 or up to six months in jail.

“Apparently no one had read the charter,” said the criminal defense lawyer, who was pleased that the City of Atlanta’s Solicitor’s Office had done the right thing and admitted its mistake. While prosecutors do have a duty to deal fairly and ethically with criminal defendants, it takes courage to admit that thousands of sentences — some dating back to 1996 — were unlawful.

Not only does the court’s charter limit its sentencing authority to six months, the federal and Georgia constitutions also limit some courts’ ability to hand down long sentences. Our due process protections guarantee that we cannot be imprisoned for a year or longer without the right to a jury trial.

Recent criminal defendants in the Atlanta Municipal Court should contact attorneys to determine if they qualify for resentencing

If you have received a sentence of more than six months from the Atlanta Municipal Court in the recent past, a criminal defense lawyer can file a petition to have you resentenced.

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Lengthy Atlanta Municipal Court sentences potentially overturned,” Christian Boone, June 24, 2011