FORSYTH COUNTY — In the wake of a recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling addressing the way misdemeanor probation violations are handled, hundreds of Forsyth County arrest warrants will be canceled.
The ruling was a surprise to state legislators, probation companies and law enforcement agencies, which all found out probation sentences can no longer be paused if the person stops reporting.
Forsyth Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Boggus, warrants supervisor for the agency, said 821 arrest warrants are no longer valid in the county and eight to 10 people have been released from jail.
Those people did not commit felonies, he said. Most of them had been cited for minor crimes such as traffic violations, speeding and minor alcohol-related incidents and absconded from their probation. Some, however, had been on probation for domestic violence.
Misdemeanor probation sentences can’t last longer than 12 months, so any that had been paused, or tolled, and would otherwise have expired are to be thrown out.
Some warrants stemmed from original probations that begun in 1987, where the person moved to another state without reporting or paying a fine.
“We’re not going to extradite someone from California because they didn’t pay a speeding ticket,” said Boggus, indicating time and money should be focused on incarcerating felony criminals.
All told, the number of outstanding warrants with the sheriff’s office was reduced from about 2,600 to 1,800.
“Numbers-wise, it looks good. It’s good for the [probationers],” Boggus said.
This loophole, however, may mean some misdemeanor probationers will decide they don’t want to fulfill their probation. As long as they get away with it for at most a year, the sentence will expire and they can’t be arrested.
“People may think they can get away with absconding for a year,” Boggus said. “It’s going to be interesting to see.”
District 24 state Rep. Mark Hamilton said he hopes the upcoming legislative session will resolve that problem by passing a bill that ensures the tolling of probation sentences becomes legal again in Georgia. He said tolling had been used for more than 20 years.
The lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court tackled tolling issues, claiming private probation companies make exorbitant amounts of money on fees that can double a person’s fine for something as minor as running a stop sign.
Hamilton authored House Bill 837 last year to keep tolling legal, but he said extra language was added that eventually caused the governor to veto it in the hopes the Supreme Court ruling would go the other way.
Hamilton said he hopes a new bill will succeed this session and include recommendations from the governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Council, which has been examining the issue.
“It’s my belief that it will be taken up in the next legislative session,” Hamilton said.
In the meantime, the sheriff’s office had already revamped its warrant unit. Doug Rainwater, an agency spokesman, said warrants can now be obtained electronically.
Since August, he said, deputies can take out a warrant 24 hours, seven days a week through a secure network, allowing them to conduct arrests after work hours when subjects may have returned home.