More drivers charged for dismissed tickets

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MORROW, Ga. - Earlier this year, a Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed thousands of Morrow drivers were charged hefty court fines for warnings. Channel 2 has now uncovered three more cities doing the same thing.

Investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer found the city of Morrow collected over $1 million in fines from drivers that were not convicted of anything. Dozens of drivers in other cities reached out to Fleischer, saying they fell prey to the same situation. A law firm is now suing the cities on behalf of the drivers.

Daniel Brackett said he thought he was getting a good deal when he fought a speeding ticket.

"She made it clear that if I accepted the warning, they were doing me a favor and giving me a $100 discount on my fine," said Brackett.

But after Brackett left, he began thinking twice about the "warning" that cost him $700.

"They change everything to warnings, collect all this cash and go on about their merry way," said Brackett.

In February, Channel 2 Action News exposed Judge Ronald Freeman racking up more than $1 million in fines.

"It's my policy to always reduce these to warnings, let you pay the fines as court cost," Freeman said in court earlier this year.

But DeKalb County Recorders Court Judge Nellie Withers said, "You don't charge for a warning."

"You cannot fine people if they are not convicted of the offense," Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said.
 
Attorney David Fife is representing the drivers.

"We're essentially asking them on behalf of everybody that they took that money from, that they have to give it back," said Fife.

Karyl Baker got her ticket in Union City, where a different judge dismissed her case but charged her $135 in court costs.

"You are kind of eager to just say, 'OK,’ because you don't want it on your record, but then when I left, it didn't seem right to me," said Baker.

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Judge Freeman works in Union City, Jonesboro and Riverdale. Fleischer filed a new open records request and found nearly 650 more tickets reduced to warnings with drivers fined another $132,111. Freeman told Channel 2 Action News he was trying to help drivers keep a clean record.

So far, the lawsuit only targets Morrow, but "we could end up having essentially a class action that's bigger with multiple defendants," said Fife.

"I think if people are really truly breaking the law, like DUIs, that needs to show because then the next time, they get stopped for the same thing, it's going to look like they've never had that before," said Baker.

City Manager Jeff Eady said it would be difficult to return the money in the current economic climate.

"I think that's an error that will be covered by their insurance policy," said Fife.

"If not, if an individual wanted to come back and file a claim, then our insurance company would definitely defend the city, but if it's found out that we owe the money, we're going to do the right thing," said Eady.

Fife told Fleischer he is asking the court for class action status on behalf of all drivers who were forced to pay for warnings or dismissals.