For Domestic Violence Victims, Calling 911 for Help Isn't Free

A lawsuit alleges that a city in Georgia is punishing women who call the police with fines and jail time if they don't want to prosecute their attackers.
October 13, 2016, 7:35pm
Photo by Stalman & Boniecka via Stocksy

According to a lawsuit, a city in Georgia is punishing victims of domestic violence who don't want to testify against their attackers in court. The suit, which was filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights, alleges that the city of Columbus has a policy of charging women—no less than $50, and in some cases more than $200—who report their assault to the police then decline to file charges. If the women can't pay the fee, court documents say, they end up in jail.

This is what happened to a woman named Cleopatra Harrison, as well as other domestic violence victims living in Columbus, after they called 911 for help, the class action lawsuit states. On June 9, the lawsuit explains, Harrison's then-boyfriend got angry over the dirty dishes in the sink. The boyfriend believed that it was Harrison's job to wash them, and he was upset that she didn't. He got violent: "He attacked Harrison, throwing her to the floor, grabbing her neck, and punching her. The assault left visible bruises and lacerations on Harrison's neck, face, and upper torso."

Read more: Biased Policy Might Be Putting Domestic Violence Victims in Jail

After the attack, he left the apartment. According to the lawsuit, Harrison called 911 but then fled her home because she thought her boyfriend might come back, and she didn't want to he there if he did. She went to her friend's place and she called 911 again, the next morning, at her friend's urging.

When the Columbus Police Department officers arrived in the morning, Harrison described what happened, and that she hit her boyfriend with frying pan in self-defense "to keep him from killing her." The lawsuit states that the police report noted the bruises all over her neck, consistent with being choked, scratches on her chest and the back of her neck, and "swelling to the right side of her forehead as if it had been hit with something or on something."

As they catalogued her injuries, Harrison informed the officers right away that she did not want to press charges. This is often the case with victims of domestic violence, and many don't leave their attackers right away. Some women don't pursue legal action because they're financially vulnerable and dependent on their abusers. (According to the lawsuit, Harrison—a 22-year-old black woman—makes $12 an hour and can't rely on her job for a steady 40-hour work week. She's currently paying off loans that she took out to pay off bills, in addition to her bills.) There are other reasons women stay, as well, including the fear of retaliation and the hope that their abuser can change.

"There are many valid reasons why someone would call the police or victims services for help, but then decide ultimately not to press charges or participate in a prosecution," Maya Raghu, who works with the National Women's Law Center and is not involved in this case, explained over the phone. "It could be for their own safety and the safety of their family."

The policy in Columbus, Georgia, however, doesn't make room for the emotional process that survivors of domestic abuse have to go through to disentangle themselves from an abusive partner. According to the suit, the city forces women to choose between their safety and paying a hefty fine—or even serving jail time." The City's policy toward women experiencing domestic violence sounds like something out of the nineteenth century," Sarah Geraghty, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, told CBS News. "It's a holdover from an era in which women were blamed for male violence." The police would end up charging Harrison $150, handcuffing her, and placing her in jail.

When Harrison told officer Michael Lincoln that she did not want to prosecute her boyfriend, Lincoln informed her that she would still have to appear in court, anyway. The officer's later arrested Harrison's boyfriend while he was at work and charged him with aggravated assault. On June 14, Harrison showed up at her boyfriend's preliminary hearing as she was ordered to.

Before the hearing, she repeated to Officer Lincoln that she did not want to press charges, and when the case was called, the officer described Harrison's assault to the judge, Judge Cielinski. The judge asked Harrison if there was anything she wanted to add, and she repeated that she did not want to press charges. Then, according to the lawsuit, the judge abruptly changed course: "Defendant Cielinski asked Defendant Lincoln how much time he spent on the case and whether Lincoln had informed Harrison about 'the fee,'" the lawsuit states. "Defendant Lincoln replied that he had spent two to three hours on the case with three other officers." And for that time, Harrison was charged $150, "since you now want to dismiss the case," the judge said according to the suit.

Laws like this… end up silencing victims.

After Judge Cielinski brought down this cold assessment, Harrison went to the clerk's office to discuss the fee, the lawsuit alleges. She told the clerk that there was no way she would be able to pay $150 that day, and the clerk simply told her that she was required to pay it within a few days, and failure to do so would result in a warrant for her arrest. The lawsuit states that as Harrison walked away from the clerk's office, officer Lincoln "grabbed her, shoved her against a wall, and handcuffed her."

"Defendant Lincoln then led Harrison to a police cruiser parked outside. Defendant Lincoln placed Harrison into the back of the cruiser while he sat in the front," the lawsuit states. "He told Harrison that he was charging her with providing false information to a law enforcement officer in violation of a City ordinance. Defendant Lincoln told Harrison that it was 'not a real charge' and was only punished by a fine."

Harrison was placed in jail, and her boyfriend had to pay $212.50 bail her out, which went toward Harrison's fee. The lawsuit states that Harrison has no recourse to protest the charge or the fine since it was paid; it also appears to imply that the charge for "providing false information" was strictly intended to make sure that Harrison paid the fee. ("When Defendant Lincoln arrested Plaintiff, there were no objective facts and circumstances that would arguably lead a prudent person to believe that Plaintiff had committed a crime," the lawsuit states. "Therefore, Defendant Lincoln's seizure of Plaintiff was objectively unreasonable.")

Read more: The Hidden Crisis of Domestic Violence Over the Holidays

The lawsuit then goes on to list three other women who have been fined for refusing to participate in the prosecution of their attackers, pointing out that this pattern of fining women who are seeking help from the police will only put them in more danger. "Laws like this are part of a troubling trend among municipalities and states. They essentially punish victims of violence and create these coercive mechanisms [to make victims testify] that end up silencing victims so that they don't go to police in the first place to report these crimes," Raghu said. Indeed, there's a whole slate of laws enacted around the country that punish domestic violence victims, like nuisance laws that penalize women who dial 911 a certain number of times to report an assault. "In this case, if victims get into court and decide they don't want to press charges, the court makes them pay a fine. It's almost like they're saying, 'You wasted our time.'"

"We know that batterers retaliate against domestic violence victims who seek to hold them accountable via the criminal justice system, all with no guarantees that batterers will receive any meaningful punishment. Extensive research shows that this can be one of the deadliest times in a victim's life. For these reasons, a victim's choice not to assist in the prosecution of their case may be their best option for protecting themselves and their children. They certainly should not be fined, jailed, or otherwise penalized for making this decision. We absolutely want batterers to be prosecuted for their crimes, but we also want victim safety—before, during, and after the prosecution—to be central," Allison Smith, the director of public policy at the Georgia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said in an email statement. "Domestic violence expert witnesses who can explain these dynamics and provide context for why a victim may be unwilling to assist in the prosecution of the batterer, coupled with evidence-based prosecution techniques, can be instrumental in achieving successful prosecutions in domestic violence cases."

The Columbus Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.