The police chief of Jefferson, Georgia was indicted this week on 30 counts of theft and invasion of privacy charges. According to the indictment, the chief was unlawfully using his access to the Georgia Crime Information Center to run background checks for his wife’s security business. He is also charged with using city property to benefit his wife’s business.
The indictment is the result of a two-year investigation by the GBI. The chief is being represented by Mike Bowers, the former Georgia Attorney General and an excellent lawyer. The chief’s surrender to the local jail was covered by the Athens Banner-Herald.
It appears that Bowers has already started to fight. He filed a motion to dismiss the indictment because his client was not allowed to appear as a witness before the grand jury when it considered the charges against him.
He has a good argument. Georgia law provides as follows:
Section 17-7-52 of the Georgia Code: (a) Before an indictment against a present or former peace officer charging the officer with a crime which is alleged to have occurred while he or she was in the performance of his or her duties is returned by a grand jury, the officer shall be notified of the contemplated action by the district attorney of the county wherein the grand jury shall convene and the officer shall be afforded the rights provided in Code Section 45-11-4. (b) The requirements of subsection (a) of this Code section shall apply to all prosecutions, whether for misdemeanors or felonies, and no such prosecution shall proceed either in state or superior court without a grand jury indictment.
This means that police officers charged with serious crimes in Georgia have a legal right to appear before the grand jury considering the charges against them. They get to make a statement and sit through all the other evidence, but they do not have to answer any questions. Even their lawyers get to sit in.
The DA’s know this and try to get around the statute. Their argument is usually that the cop was not “performing his duties” because he was violating the law. Of course, that begs the question. You can’t assume that the officer is guilty until he is indicted and convicted. Until then, he is presumed innocent like everyone else.
Our firm has represented several police officers charged with crimes, in both Georgia and federal courts. (Read the local media coverage of our work in these cases.) In my experience, Bowers is right. Grand juries are reluctant to indict police officers when the officer is able to speak directly to them and explain the circumstances that led up to the allegations. I have never had one of my officer clients indicted after they appeared before the grand jury considering the charges.
Of course, it helps to have a client who is not guilty. We’ll see how this case turns out.