by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
MORROW, Ga. - A Channel 2 investigation uncovered a Morrow judge changing traffic tickets into warnings, but charging drivers hefty fines anyway. The offenses were kept off of state records.
The fines range from speeding to hit-and-run offenses. If they are not on a driver's record, the next officer or prosecutor will not know the driver is a repeat offender. Experts told Channel 2 Action News there is no authority under Georgia law to fine someone for a warning.
Driver Daniel Brackett admitted to investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer that he was speeding on his way to work last summer, when he got pulled over by a Morrow police officer.
"He said I was going 71, and I probably was," said Brackett.
His fine would have been $800, and he wanted to plead no contest.
"And the assistant to the judge, said, 'No, we're going to change your ticket to a warning and give you a $100 discount," said Brackett.
Brackett told Fleischer he could not resist, especially upon hearing there would be no points on his license.
"So I said, 'OK, whatever.' I paid my fine and left," said Brackett.
But something did not sit well with him, Brackett told Fleischer.
"A warning is just that -- warning. Don't do this again. Have a nice day," said Brackett.
But not in Morrow, where Channel 2 Action News cameras caught Judge Ronald Freeman turning tickets into warnings over and over again.
"It's my policy to always reduce these to warnings and let you pay the fine as court costs, OK, so it will not go on your record," said Judge Ronald Freeman one day in traffic court. "Come on up here, let you pay it as court costs, so it doesn't go on your record."
Channel 2 Action News filed an open records request for every Morrow ticket reduced to a warning last year. There were 2,879 of them -- one in every five tickets.
Channel 2 found the city collected well over $1 million for warnings.
Freeman wouldn’t appear on camera but told Fleischer over the phone it's completely within his discretion to change the tickets to warnings and still issue those fines.
"You don't charge for a warning," said Chief Judge Nelly Withers, who presides over DeKalb County's traffic court, the busiest in the state.
"A warning is almost an adjudication of not guilty. It means that the case is not going forward against you. If you can't be punished, you can't be fined," said Withers.
Fleischer showed her Brackett's warning for speeding in a construction zone.
"They are breaking the law, just like I was," said Brackett.
Freeman fined 615 other drivers for the same thing, and they weren’t just speeders. Forty-nine drivers had no insurance. Thirty-seven had suspended or revoked licenses.
"There is absolutely no legal basis for keeping that money," said Withers.
Money isn't the only problem, said Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson.
"I would say it's dangerous to the community," said Lawson. "Nothing is written down on the record."
Driver Hung Tran was sentenced to probation, registering a 0.182 blood-alcohol percent on a Breathalyzer. Tran was driving with a child in the car, but the child endangerment charge was reduced to a warning and left off his record.
"If we're not doing them the right way, we want to correct them and do them the right way from this point forward," said Jeff Eady, Morrow's City Manager.
Eady said insurance could cover it if the city has to return all of the money. Lawson said that might be necessary.
"I'm talking with the heads of other agencies and investigators with other agencies to determine what steps we are going to take to resolve this situation," said Lawson.
As a result of Channel 2’s investigation, the Judicial Qualifications Commission questioned Freeman and said he was "contrite, accepted responsibility and admitted his mistake and gave assurances that citations would no longer be handled in this manner."
The JQC stopped short of taking disciplinary action.