Arraignment Day

September 7, 2017

In June, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Kristina Cook Graham announced that the state of Georgia had approved the funds, and organizational work had already begun: The circuit will shortly be unveiling its first drug court.

 

The Planet will follow such a development with great interest; but the question for now is: how will a drug court be distinguishable from the regular flavor? At LMJC’s last arraignment day in Dade Superior Court on Aug. 24, virtually every case involved drug violations.

 

Drug courts, according to online definitions, are problem-solving courts that take a public-health approach to the drug problem, in which the judiciary, prosecution, defense, probation, law enforcement, social services and treatment communities work together to help addicted offenders into long-term recovery.

 

All those elements were represented to some degree in "regular court" on the 24th. So perhaps the difference to come will be a matter of approach, or intent, as in this new idea of drugs as a public health issue to be cured as opposed to a crime to be punished. For most of the cases on arraignment day, an uninformed observer might have been hard put to figure out just what the intent was, or really what precisely constituted crime. 

 

But first, a higher-profile case, of the kind The Planet’s own intent had been to cover:

 

Charles Kevin Wooten (right) appeared briefly before Circuit Judge Brian House, dressed in prison orange, pursuant to a motion from his attorneys asking to withdraw from his case. Wooten is scheduled to go to trial in October in three different cases, all involving trafficking in or possession of various illegal drugs including methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana. He was last arrested this January and has been detained at the Dade jail since.

 

The upshot of the 24th’s proceedings regarding Wooten was a ruling by Judge House relieving attorneys Charles Wright and Philip Duval of Wooten’s defense, though the judge noted: “The Court finds (1) Counsel and the Defendant are unable to communicate [and] (2) The Defendant has created said conflict with his counsel in order to further delay the trial of the above cases.”

 

Star defense attorney Christopher Townley had filed a similar motion, and had similarly been relieved from Wooten's defense, in March of this year. This time, Wooten’s defense was assigned to the Public Defender’s office. His trial for the combined three cases is slated for Oct. 16.

 

Moving on to the other cases heard on Aug. 24, the more common kind of offense, as on most arraignment days—and the courtroom is generally packed—tends to be the victimless variety, in which defendants are charged not with trafficking but only with possessing outlawed drugs, ostensibly hurting no one but themselves. For the most part this is not their first appearance before the judge; they are here because they have violated their drug-sentence probation by being found in possession of more drugs.

 

These drug offenders appear humbly before the judge, making such a contrast with the court establishment that our uninformed observer might surmise it is not so much a matter of two different social classes as of two different species of humans. The judge and lawyers are combed, scrubbed and pressed, dolled up in suits and ties. They give the orders, waving papers in the other species’ faces, thrusting pens in their hands, telling them where to sign.

 

The drug defendant species wear shorts and jeans, faded T-shirts and tattoos, and they hunch their shoulders and do as told. Humblest of species 2 are the defendants who are actively incarcerated. They wear orange jumpsuits, handcuffs and leg irons, and they sit in a special area guarded by deputies until commanded to get up.

 

Membership in species 2 does not seem strictly dependent on being charged with or judged guilty of a crime. It can be conferred by association, or perhaps mere position in the courtroom. One young man called by the public defender to speak in defense of his orange-clad friend, who has been found with a marijuana grinder while on probation, asks if he can add something else. “No, you cannot,” the judge answers sternly. A few minutes later, the eager witness tries again to pipe up. This time, Judge House snaps: “If you interrupt me again, you’re going to go to jail for 10 days.”

 

In fact, the young man does not interrupt again and the judge does not send him to jail. That is the general trend with these drug cases. Though a few T-shirted defendants are led off to join the orange crowd, in most cases the sentence seems to be probation, even in cases where a previous probation has been violated and is being revoked. 

 

Photo: A marijuana grinder, which can be easily and legally ordered online.

 

Here are some high points of random cases heard on arraignment day:

 

A woman, 28, has violated probation conditions in a previous meth conviction by being found in possession of hydrocodone. Her mother appears, telling the judge her daughter has had drug problems since high school but is now trying to take charge of her life in order to be there for her two young children. The young woman, speaking in her own turn, weeps and says much the same. She is ordered to remain in jail until a bed becomes available at a residential drug treatment center. Her trial is scheduled for October on the hydrocodone charge.

 

One woman's previous probation is revoked, a new one granted, and she must pay a $281.65 fee and enroll in a substance abuse treatment program. A man pleads guilty and is sentenced to two years' probation and a $750 fine.

 

The judge asks a young man if he realizes possession of more than one ounce of marijuana carries a minimum sentence of one year in jail. The man says yes, but in pants too short for his legs and with his unlined face under an oddly shaped pompadour, he looks like a boy who has grown too fast and is stunned to be charged as an adult. Ultimately he is sentenced to seven years, but allowed to serve them on probation.

 

A trend that emerges is that species 2 is often arrested for drug offenses after being stopped for traffic violations, making for charges such as meth and no insurance, hydrocodone and no seat belt.

 

One young man appears before the judge with a peculiar situation. He was on probation and ordered to complete a drug rehab program, which he dropped out of for what he described as very good reasons. But he subsequently enrolled in a different rehab program in Florida and has completed it. The problem with that, explains his probation officer, is that he wasn't supposed to be in Florida. His probation required him to stay in the area.

 

​​The young man, well-spoken and presentable, explains that he left the state because his probation would have been threatened by staying here, where he was in with a bad group of friends and prone to relapse. Anyway, his insurance paid for the Florida rehab whereas it wouldn't pay for the local one.

 

The young man says he is employed and working hard now. “I don’t have time to think about drugs," he tells the judge. He has reconciled with his girlfriend with whom he has a child, and they plan to marry. The fiancee is a schoolteacher who couldn't come today, but she has written a testimonial letter which the judge duly reads.

 

The young man's father also appears before the judge. He tells the judge his son has had drug problems since high school, and in fact first ran into trouble with drugs when he was prescribed Adderall as a child. Later he developed an addiction to pain medications after he had back surgery. He was arrested for methamphetamine. “I would like you to have mercy on him," the father tells the judge.

 

The judge says if the probation officer accepts the Florida rehab program as satisfying the requirements of the young man's probation, so will the judge; but if not he must still satisfy those requirements. And he sentences him to more probation, this time with an ankle monitor so there is no question he'll stay put.

 

When will the local judicial circuit have a drug court? There is no ETA on that as yet. But in Dade Superior, the next arraignment day is Sept. 28.

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