Coweta judge lets woman off hook after fining her $1,590 for no tag decal

7th June, 2016
Atlanta-Journal Constitution
Rhonda Cook

A Grantville Municipal Court judge on Tuesday canceled the $1,590 fine she had levied against a 52-year-old woman for not putting a decal on her license plate.


Linda Ford was put on probation in February because the judge in the small Coweta County city said Ford owed the money. By Tuesday she had paid $300 toward the fine, which would have totaled $1,722 with additional state-mandated and probation supervision fees.


Judge Lisa Reeves did not offer a reason for closing Ford’s case “with modifications” less than three hours after an attorney notified the court that she was representing Ford. Reeves’ decision to suspend “all remaining fines and fees” also came six days after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article detailing the extraordinarily large fine that came out of a traffic stop because of a dirty license plate.


“Even though they dismissed it, I still feel dirty. … I still feel like a criminal,” said Ford, a baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport who lives in Fairburn. “I tried to live a clean Christian life. I ministered to the children. But I didn’t feel like I was worthy to do such thing. My life changed.”


Judge Reeves did not return a call seeking comment.


A Grantville police officer pulled over Ford at about 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 5, while she was on her way to a yard sale at a LaGrange church. The officer said he stopped her because her license plate cover had too much tint. But it was dirt — not tinting — blown from the car’s exhaust that covered her plate.


It was then that the police officer discovered Ford had not attached an updated decal to her licence plate to show her 2015 registration fee was paid. She showed him the decal and a receipt that had been forgotten for months in her glove box; the registration fee was paid in January, but her car was in the shop for lengthy repairs at the time.


Still, the officer said, Coweta County records showed that her registration was suspended, so she should explain it to the judge.


Attorney Sarah Geraghty with the Southern Center for Human Rights said the county’s records were inaccurate. Ford’s insurance was lapsed for three weeks starting in late December 2014, which was also while her 2011 Audi was in the shop for repairs. But her insurance was paid and her registration reinstated on Jan. 4, 2015. The Coweta County tag office, however, did not remove the suspension notation on Ford’s car registration record until Jan. 11 of this year — more than a year after the suspension was actually lifted, and about a month after Ford appeared before Reeves for the first time.


Ford took documents showing that her registration was current to her hearing in December.


Still, Reeves fined Ford $720 for failure to have current decal on her license plate.


Reeves granted Ford’s request for 30 days to raise the money but warned her that the fine would increase if she didn’t have the money by then.


Ford returned to court Feb. 9 with only $480 of what she owed. Reeves increased the fine, as promised, to $1,590, refusing to look at Ford’s documents or listen to her explanation. Ford was ordered to report regularly to a probation officer until the fine was paid.


“It does something to you on the inside,” Ford said about being on probation. “I was ashamed. People at work knew. I didn’t act the same. My hair started to come out because I was so stressed out.”


Geraghty noted two problems with the increased fine Reeves assessed. Reeves had already imposed punishment in December, so she could not legally raise the fine in February, Geraghty said. Also, traffic offenses are misdemeanors, which carry a maximum fine of $1,000.


Many city court judges may feel pressure to have their courts serve as revenue sources for the city,” Geraghty said. “Too often the goal of money collection is put in front of the more legitimate goals of public safety and rehabilitation. These are the courts that most people will have some interaction with and when they see that money is the primary focus, it really undermines the integrity of the courts and it makes people lose faith in their local systems of justice.”