A federal judge has issued a final ruling in the class-action lawsuit domestic-violence victims filed against Columbus for being assessed a fee if they refused to prosecute their abusers.
Columbus Council since has repealed the ordinance that authorized Recorder’s Court judges to fine women who declined to prosecute. The initial suit was brought by Cleopatra Harrison, whose then-boyfriend was accused of assaulting her in June 2016, leaving bruises and scrapes on her neck, face and torso.
During the boyfriend’s preliminary hearing, Harrison, then 22, told Judge Michael Cielinski she agreed with a police officer’s account of the incident, but she did not want to be a prosecution witness. Cielinski fined her $150, which Harrison said she could not afford. She was threatened with jail.
Represented by Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights and Columbus attorney Mark Post, Harrison sued in federal court both on her own behalf and that of other victims fined for refusing to prosecute.
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On March 1, Columbus Council repealed the ordinance and approved $75,000 to settle the class-action suit.
“To the city’s great credit, it did not defend the ordinance, but repealed it and agreed to compensate those were forced to pay so-called victim fees,” said Sarah Geraghty, the human rights center’s managing attorney.
The center cited cases in which the victim neither called police nor otherwise sought to have an abuser prosecuted. A boyfriend in May 2016 beat a woman so severely with a handgun that she was incoherent when police found her on the roadside. She was fined $200 when she refused to pursue the charges in court.
The judges never considered why a woman might refuse to prosecute, such as the abusive partner’s intimidation or retaliation, the center said.
Council since has sought to correct issues with its Recorder’s Court operation, adding funding for full-time public defenders and investigators to represent indigent defendants. Cielinski has retired, and council has appointed Julius Hunter, an attorney and former city councilor, to replace him.
The final ruling
In his ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land wrote that no one has objected to the settlement, which he was giving final approval.
The class of plaintiffs was defined as those who “at any time from October 5, 2014, through the date of the settlement agreement, were assessed or paid a ‘victim assessment fee’ related to a proceeding in the Columbus Recorder’s Court or any similar fee for dismissal or non-prosecution of a criminal action….”
He ordered the city to send the plaintiffs’ attorneys a check for the funds within 14 days, and for the attorneys to distribute those funds to their clients within 14 days after that. They then are to inform the court the funds have been disbursed.
The attorneys will get $15,000, and Harrison is to receive an “incentive fee payment” of $5,000 “in light of the service performed … for the settlement class,” Land wrote.
Columbus City Attorney Clifton Fay said Harrison will get a total of $18,000, which after attorneys’ fees will leave around $42,000 for other plaintiffs.
The Southern Center for Human Rights said Friday that it identified 101 people who paid the court fees, 34 of whom responded to its notice of the lawsuit. The exact amount left after Harrison’s funds and attorneys’ fees will be $41,844, it said. Each of those who responded to the lawsuit notice will be repaid their court fines plus $969 in other compensation, the center said.
Fay said any funds unclaimed after 90 days will go to Hope Harbour, the Columbus shelter for victims of domestic abuse.