ATLANTA - While Georgia state officials are trying to reduce inmate overcrowding, one local police agency is willing to throw people behind bars for jaywalking.
The Atlanta Police Department said in the past year, officers have issued 266 tickets for obstructing the roadway, a form of jaywalking.
But a Channel 2 Action News investigation found that in some cases, Atlanta police have also taken people to jail.
Johnetta Williams wanted to cross a street in northeast Atlanta when she decided to take a shortcut. Rather than walk up to the nearby intersection, she walked across in the middle of the block.
Cars were stopped, she said, waiting for a red light up ahead of them. But when she cut across the street, she did it in front of a police officer.
“And he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going to walk in front of me like that?’ I’m confused, I’m not really thinking about him, so I was like, ‘Yeah, It’s a red light.’”
Williams said the officer rushed toward her, demanded she stop and handcuffed her. Williams explained what he said to her next, “Well, you’re about to go to jail for violating Georgia’s jaywalking laws.”
Then, she told Channel 2’s Dave Huddleston, the officer called for backup.
Williams spent eight hours behind bars before she bonded out of jail. Williams called it, “The worst day of my life. The worst experience I had in my life.”
This Georgia State College student has something in common with an internationally known British historian who now teaches at Notre Dame University.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was thrown in the slammer in Atlanta back in 2007. The crime: Jaywalking. He was in town for a history conference and was trying to get to a lecture. He never made it.
He said when he crossed the street, an officer yelled at him for jaywalking. Fernandez-Armesto, who didn’t live in the U.S. back then, told Huddleston, “I thanked him politely for what I thought was well-intentioned advice and continued on my way.”
That turned out to be a mistake the historian won’t forget.
“As I turned to proceed, he kicked my legs from under me. He pinned me to the ground. He wrenched my arm behind my back. I lost my spectacles. I was bleeding. My clothes were torn.”
Like Williams, Fernandez-Armesto spent eight hours behind bars.
The two have something else in common, as well. When they went to court, both cases were dismissed.
Williams told Huddleston the prosecutor laughed when he saw the charges. Fernandez-Armesto says of the prosecutors, “They told the judge they didn’t wish to proceed with the case, and he rapped his gavel and dismissed it.”
There’s no doubt that jaywalking can have more serious consequences than jail time. For example, a jaywalker was killed while crossing the Tara Boulevard in Clayton County in 2011.
Atlanta police refused to go on camera about the arrests, but sent Huddleston a statement said in part, “Our officers have always had the discretion to either issue a citation or make a physical arrest on any violation of the law, including jaywalking. Certainly, we believe instances of physical arrest for minor infractions are not common.”
Well-known defense attorney Manny Aurora told Huddleston that going to jail for jaywalking seems a bit extreme.
“It’s like, what a waste of resources, because now you’re taking a bed at the jail. The police are spending who knows how much money processing all types of things when we have serious crime out there,” Aurora said.