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I-TEAM | Shifting justice: Questionable detainment uncovers complex court problems

Published: Oct. 21, 2021 at 6:33 PM EDT
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HEPHZIBAH, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - An I-Team investigation into a questionable arrest uncovers a complex problem happening in courtrooms across the area: suspects potentially being denied jury trials.

It began when a man was arrested for cursing while singing on a Hephzibah sidewalk. Bodycam footage shows the situation escalated when the man in question asked for the officer’s name and badge. Christopher Jefferson was then arrested and charged, despite the I-Team finding the same officer also cursed at Jefferson during the ordeal.

Jefferson wanted a jury to hear his case, but a local judge denied that request. So, he came to the I-Team to investigate shifting justice in the city of Hephzibah.

The I-Team reviewed the evidence from the incident reports, citations and bodycam video from the day of Jefferson’s arrest in September. We also consulted with a local expert about the case.

We found one could argue there are more cracks in the case against Jefferson than in the street where police stopped him.

Jefferson’s initial arrest

The body cam footage picks up as police are outside of a Hephzibah home on an unrelated call on the afternoon of September 13, 2021. During that investigation, Jefferson happened to walk by on the sidewalk outside of the house. Video shows he was singing and singing loudly to a song through his headphones.

That’s when Officer Brian Tucker approaches Jefferson.

Tucker: “You’re shouting profanity out of your mouth walking down the road here.”

Jefferson: “I ain’t trying to be disrespectful…nothing like that.”

Tucker: “Don’t be cussing.”

After some back and forth, Officer Tucker appears to let Jefferson go with this warning.

Tucker: “Don’t let me be catching you f***** walking down the road again.”

That’s when Jefferson asks his own question of Officer Tucker.

Jefferson shouting as Tucker walks away: “May I ask what your name is sir?”

Tucker: “My name is Tucker. Write it down.”

Jefferson: “Can I take a picture of your badge, please? Come on, please sir?”

Tucker begins approaching Jefferson again and says: “He’s got five seconds.”

Jefferson: “Just want your name so I can make a report. That’s all I am asking.”

Bodycam video shows after Jefferson’s question about Officer Tucker’s identity, the situation escalates and ends with Jefferson in handcuffs and charged.

His wife Amie Davis-Jefferson arrives at the scene and can’t make sense of it to the officers.

“Something triggered you because he had the audacity to ask you for your name and badge number?” she asks. “Is that what this is? He’s disturbing the peace? He’s walking down the street with headphones in his ears?”

At this point, Hephzibah Police Chief Matthew Mercer is at the scene and responds to Davis-Jefferson.

Chief Mercer: “He’s walking down the street with headphones in his ears cursing, loudly.”

Davis-Jefferson: “Listening to music and repeating the song lyrics? So, he’s being detained - for what?”

Chief Mercer’s bodycam shows a conversation with Officer Tucker at the scene. It appears even Chief Mercer seems unsure himself how to even charge Jefferson.

Mercer: “If nothing else we can get him on disorderly conduct.”

Tucker: “Yeah but that’s pretty thin I mean he’s talking freedom of speech.”

Mercer: “The fact that he wouldn’t move on-would be a disorderly.”

The ticket shows Hephzibah police settled on two violations: profanity and disorderly conduct.

Fallout from the charges

Weeks after the arrest, the Jefferson’s sat down with the I-Team.

“Why are stopping him for profanity but then turn around and use the same profanity on him?” asks Davis-Jefferson with her husband at her side.

Jefferson tells I-Team senior investigative reporter Liz Owens he believes so much in his innocence, he wants a jury to hear his case. “Because I feel like I would get better justice than what’s going on.”

The I-Team was there when the case then went to Municipal Court and Officer Tucker testified against Jefferson. Notably, Officer Tucker did not disclose his own use of profanity to the judge while charging Jefferson with using profanity.

Turner’s testimony: “The last thing I could hear, which I guess is part of the song, was something about a bad b****.”

Possible case of profiling by police?

A defense attorney in Augusta reviewed the evidence and tells the I-Team Jefferson’s case is not unique.

Tanya Jeffords fights profiling by some police more often than she would like. “I think it’s more prevalent than people think it is.”

Take for example, the arrest of Kathey Sheppard. A Richmond County deputy arrested her for obstruction, an ordinance violation, last spring.

“She is an older lady she is in the car the officer says he saw this car run away from him like the day before. So, he approaches the car with the woman in it and draws his gun on her. She’s like – ‘whoa’. He yanks her out of the car throws her on the ground she’s lost her voice.... She gets arrested she pees on herself, and she goes to jail.”

The I-Team obtained that bodycam footage, too.

Jeffords demanded a jury trial for Sheppard. The judge moved the case from local magistrate court to state court in order to let a jury hear the case. There are no jury trials in magistrate court.

“The case gets dismissed because the prosecutor looks at it and realizes the video doesn’t match up with what the report said the lady had done when it occurred....But, what does that for her?” Jeffords asks.

The prosecutor writes in the motion for dismissal: “The facts in the incident report do not match the warrant. The inconsistencies cannot be overcome. "

“The officers used the power of the pen.” Explains Jeffords. “And that’s why a lot of people especially in the African American community don’t trust officers.

Unlike Kathey Sheppard, Jefferson is denied a jury trial

Magistrate and municipal courts are local court and they cannot hold jury trials in Georgia.

In Sheppard’s case, a judge decided to move her case to state court where it was later thrown out.

Jefferson’s attorney asked the municipal court for a jury trial for his client in state court.

The Municipal judge in Hephzibah, Judge Freddie Sanders, denied Jefferson that right because he said this was a city ordinance and not a state law that was broken.

That change happened because minutes before Jefferson’s pre-trial hearing, the prosecuting attorney amended the charges, dropping them from disorderly conduct and profanity to a lesser charge of violating the city’s noise control ordinance.

The I-Team found that decision to amend the charges robbed Jefferson of his right to a jury trial.

We looked into legal precedent about cases like this and found one in the Supreme court of Georgia. Geng versus the state of Georgia in 2003. That case set this legal precedent: municipal courts cannot deny jury trials to anyone charged with a misdemeanor under state code.

We found Jefferson’s initial charge of disorderly conduct is in the Georgia code.

However, when the prosecutor reduced Jefferson’s charges, the new charge only applied to the city of Hephzibah’s noise control ordinance which is not in the state code. Thus, the legal precedent in Geng v Georgia was no longer applicable.

Jefferson’s fight for change in Hephzibah court

The Jefferson’s are not happy with the decision by the court to deny Christopher Jefferson of a jury trial for his original charges.

“We don’t want you to drop the charge because you want to sweep it under the rug. That’s not how it works.” Explains Davis-Jefferson.

When Jefferson returns to municipal court, he will go before the same judge for a bench trial, meaning the judge is the jury. If found guilty of violating the city’s noise control ordinance, he will pay a fine of $380.

We took a closer look at Hephzibah’s noise control ordinance and found it outlaws day-singing in the city.

It’s found in section 13-124 b of the city code. “It is unlawful for any person or persons to…sing on the public streets or sidewalks...between the hours of 7 a.m. and 12:00 midnight.”

We asked defense attorney Jeffords about the decision by the magistrate judge and Jefferson’s prosecutor in Hephzibah.

“In this case, when the officers reduced it so there would be no jury trial, and he would just go before a judge, I can understand why the young man is upset he probably feels like his constitutional rights were probably violated.” Jeffords explains. “And I think the fourth amendment was and he was unfairly charged.”

The I-Team found the Georgia Municipal Association warns elected officials of the potential constitutional rights violations that could exist in municipal court writing:

“Municipal courts should never be utilized for purposes of revenue generation....when a city becomes dependent on municipal court revenues, the goal of serving justice may be impaired....”

The Department of Justice shone a spotlight on constitutional violations by municipal courts in its report on the investigation into the Ferguson police department in 2015.

“The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by FPD, and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue. the impact that revenue concerns have on court operations undermines the court’s role as a fair and impartial judicial body.”

To analyze just how much revenue cases like Jefferson’s bring in for the city of Hephzibah, the I-Team analyzed the city budget.

We found tickets, citations, and court fines brought in nearly $80,000 in revenue for the city of Hephzibah last fiscal year.

In contrast, that is more revenue than the city receives from alcohol licenses, building permits, business occupation tax, cemetery lot sales and grave openings – combined.

“I have a robbery charge I got convicted in 2010. I was 16 at the time. I haven’t been in trouble in almost eleven years now.” Jefferson shares.

He believes his background put a target on his back. Perhaps the officers’ own background led to his detainment.

The I-Team found Chief Matthew Mercer is new to law enforcement. The former fire chief became the police chief last December. He’s been certified in law enforcement for less than a year; yet leads the entire department. We found he completed his training on “rules of evidence” three weeks before charging Jefferson.

We also found Officer Brian Tucker came from the fire department, too. He’s been working as a reserve officer at the police department for the last five years. He, too, just completed training on “rules of evidence.”

Jefferson’s wife, Amie vows to keep fighting.

“Wrong is wrong and right is right, and this was completely wrong and you abused that power behind that badge.”

The balance of power in our justice system can be checked by juries but who checks the judges and the police when no jury can hear the case?

Jefferson goes back to court next week. He tells the I-Team he is pleading not guilty.

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