City offers limited chance to get warrant wiped off the books

Atlanta Municipal Court offers one-time amnesty for thousands who skipped court

On a frigid Tuesday morning in February, Atlanta Municipal Court Chief Judge Herman Sloan sits comfortably inside his fifth-floor courtroom, deciding the outcome of a string of traffic violations. The cases range from failures to fasten seat belt to speeding to DUI violations. Sloan today appears to be on autopilot, churning through his high caseload. He has no choice given the high volume of people standing before him.

Despite receiving millions of dollars last year to expand operations, the court is struggling to keep up with a record number of citations. People who last year committed misdemeanors in the city received more than 250,000 tickets — a number that Sloan expects to climb in the future. Over the years roughly 70,000 misdemeanor offenders skipped their court date, resulting in a "Failure to Appear," or FTA for short, that remain unresolved.

"The number was growing exponentially," Sloan says. "We knew we had to do something. ... If we don't get a handle on FTAs, they will continue to grow."

The Atlanta City Council last year gave the court an additional $3.9 million to hire approximately 40 staffers and keep its doors open five days per week. Prior to that funding, which helped restore court operations to pre-Great Recession levels, Sloan says the court was like a duck in the water — looking as calm as possible on the surface but paddling furiously beneath it.

The court's judges also used that extra cash to create a unit tasked with chipping away at its FTA backlog. The team started by finally entering warrants into the Georgia Crime Information Center database, which allows officers across the state to see whether a person has missed a court date, has a suspended driver's license, and should be taken into custody.

But as the court ramped up its warrant enforcement, Sloan says the judges decided to give people a chance to resolve open cases by offering them amnesty on past FTAs and an accompanying $100 contempt fee.

Between now and March 27, people who have outstanding delinquent traffic, city ordinance, or misdemeanor violations — and who might have warrants for their arrest, whether they know it or not — may be eligible for a one-time chance to clear those past tickets off their records without being subject to arrest.

"Maybe they forget about a ticket," Sloan says. "This gives them an opportunity to close the case."

To qualify for amnesty, a person would need to have an FTA on file prior to Nov. 18, 2014. But they would have to resolve the underlying misdemeanor offense that required them to appear in court in the first place. That could mean that the court appearance ends up being heard outright, diverted to pre-trial intervention, or even dismissed. Judges and solicitors will have the same legal options available to them in a hearing where the defendant shows up to the courtroom. In other words, it's not a clean wipe of the slate — just the FTA violation and an associated fine.

Not all misdemeanors are eligible. Sloan says people who skipped court on a DUI charge won't receive amnesty.

"It's setting the clock back in time," says Ryan Shepard of Mayor Kasim Reed's Office of Innovation Delivery and Performance. "The options available the day you were supposed to appear in court will be given back to you."

The ultimate success of warrant amnesty programs can vary depending on the city or county. When St. Louis launched a similar program last year, fewer than 15 percent of people took advantage of the one-time offer. Shepard says city officials have chatted with other courts in Georgia, New York, California, and Texas about their amnesty warrant programs.

Those recommendations included the incorporation of technology to let people settle cases online, scheduling evening and weekend dockets, and sending postcards to the last known address for anyone with an outstanding warrant. The suggestions have in turn become a part of the city's amnesty program, Sloan says.

Of Atlanta's roughly 70,000 outstanding warrants, Sloan declined to estimate the number of people who could participate in the warrant amnesty program. But he encourages as many eligible people as possible to take advantage of the offer. Once the amnesty offer expires, Shepard says police officers throughout Georgia will be able to "rigorously" enforce outstanding warrants — now that they're in the statewide database.

Funds collected from resolved cases would go back to the city's general fund. The mayor's office declined to comment on how much cash the amnesty program could generate for the city.

Visit court.atlantaga.gov or call 311 for more information.

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