By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Lawmakers ponder changes to traffic violations
Placeholder Image

Some state lawmakers are examining Georgia’s traffic laws and penalties in an effort to make the court system more effective and efficient.

A House study committee on Georgia’s code on motor vehicles and traffic has been meeting with prosecutors, judges, criminal defense lawyers and others to see where laws can be tweaked or improved. The group was formed based on the recommendations of the Criminal Justice Reform Council, which last year suggested an examination of traffic laws.

“By and large (the committee) stems from the recommendations from the criminal justice reform council in 2011,” said Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, a member of the committee. “Now we’re taking a look at another area in what improvements we can make to continue that reform that was an initiative of Gov. (Nathan) Deal’s vision.”

The committee has been meeting while the legislature is out of session, and has meetings lined up through the end of the year, Golick said. Study committee usually research issues and then present information or a proposal to the General Assembly for discussion.

“I think there’s a lot of moving parts to our traffic laws so I’m glad that we’re taking the time here in the off season to take a look at the subject matter in terms of what makes sense and what doesn’t,” Golick said. “What I hope we do is at the end of the process is we come together and come to consensus on an approach that makes sense, that’s been tested, that will certainly not do harm, and if anything, will bring more efficiency to the court system.”

Stephanie Woodard, solicitor general for Hall County, has been working with the committee in her role as president of the Georgia Association of Solicitors-General.

“What (the committee is) intending to do is ease the actual foot traffic in court, to ease the time that people have to take off work to go into court,” she said. “It’s part of what this governor’s efforts to look at the entire criminal justice reform, and what they really focused on the first time out was ... more of the drug offenses.”

One topic of discussion by the committees is the best way for criminal misdemeanor traffic violations to be heard in court.

“One of the areas is to take a look at in some areas of the state you’ve got superior court judges spending time on trials involving people running red lights,” Golick said. “That of course beg the question, is a superior court judge’s time best spent having to hear moving violations?”

Woodard said that because Georgia has so many different counties, the method of hearing traffic cases varies.

“We have so many counties of so many urban development levels,” she said. “In smaller counties that do not have a state court, a probate judge is hearing their case, but if someone wants a jury trial then it goes before a superior court judge.

“Those kind of things are inconsistent from county to county.”

Woodard said Hall County does not have superior court judges hearing minor traffic cases, but Dawson County does.

“What I was hearing from the judges is that (hearing traffic cases) is still a tiny portion of their times,” she said. “But it’s still time, and it doesn’t mean never.”

If superior court judges don’t hear the cases, Golick said the next question is: Who should? The committee is looking into all aspects, whether it would be assigning those cases to probate or magistrate courts, or even a newly formed state body.  Woodard said the Enotah Judicial Circuit, which includes Lumpkin, Towns, Union and White counties, would be one of the areas that could use a state designated body to hear traffic cases.

Another topic the committee is looking into is decriminalization of some criminal misdemeanor traffic violations.

“We’re taking a look at is reclassifying certain traffic laws that we have on the books that are currently categorized as a criminal misdemeanor,” Golick said. “The question for the committee and ultimately the General Assembly is where should we draw that line.”

The study committee has not gotten into specifics on a list of violations that shouldn’t be criminal offenses, Golick said. He also pointed out that other states have done similar reclassifying of violations.

“We certainly would not be the first (state),” Golick said. “I think we would do well to take a look at what other states have done and learn from those successes and failures from those other states.”

Woodard said the idea of decriminalizing traffic violations is complicated.

“We can’t just think about traffic cases as seat belt violations and speeding tickets,” she said. “Traffic stops are where a lot of criminal warrants are served, and where (police) also encounter criminal conduct.”

There are times when police stop drivers for speeding and smell alcohol or drugs, leading to other criminal charges, Woodard said.

Golick said it would make sense for any decriminalization to start at some of the “very minor” traffic violations such as broken tail lights and equipment violations.

“I can only speak for myself, but that’s where I would begin, and then as you go up the line in the type of offense, the committee must decide at what point is it appropriate to draw the line,” he said.

Woodard echoed Golick’s sentiments.

“One of the clear answer I hear at the table from everyone is that we should decriminalize traffic equipment violations (such as) cracked windshields and broken tail lights,” she said, adding that while drivers can face up to 12 months in jail for those charges, it is “very, very rare.”

Less than 1 percent of traffic charges go to court, Woodard said. Hall County had 10,138 traffic citations since Jan. 1, according to Michelle Meeks, criminal division supervisor of the Hall County Clerks Office. That means a little more than 100 violations may go to trial.

While decriminalization of equipment violations is a popular idea, it also comes with its challenges, Woodard said.

“What it does if you take away that punishment is it takes away probation,” she said, adding that many probations require educational driving classes such as defensive driving. “You don’t have a mechanism if you take away criminal charges; we’d have to say ‘go do defensive driving on your honor’ as opposed to having a hearing.”

That change would make tracking minor traffic cases “much more cumbersome,” and limit tools judges would have to make drivers return to court, Woodard said.

The study committee also is looking at changing the punishment length for high and aggravated misdemeanors, Woodard said. Select misdemeanors become aggravated misdemeanors if they are repeated so many times. Some charges that can be upgraded upon repeating are things like elder abuse and driving on suspended license, Woodard said.

“Without going to a felony, we can increase the time of court supervision to 18,24, or 36 months, she said, adding that change would allow offenders more time to complete alternative sentencing options.

The committee is keeping safety as a priority in discussing any changes to the court system or traffic laws, Golick said.

“Public safety is paramount,” he said. “The question is: what reforms can we make to the system, if any, that will certainly not threaten public safety, but really enhance public safety while bringing more efficiency?

“I’m confident we can get there. We achieved it last year with the criminal justice reform so I have not reason to believe we cannot achieve this.”

Friends to Follow social media