A local man suspected of fleeing from police failed to show up for court, and no one could be surprised. A magistrate judge had released him without requiring bail because he was trying to prove a point to a new trooper, but he picked the wrong case as an example.
Magistrate judges are too often unheralded for the service they do to keep us all safe from government overreach.
They are judges whose primary role is to safeguard our rights found in the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure and against unlawful arrest. In authorizing search warrants and arraigning those who are arrested, their first job is to ensure that the government, in the form of police and prosecutors, is acting with probable cause. These judges are our guardians.
In other countries, government critics are subject to having their phones tapped, their homes ransacked and to undergoing nuisance frisks and interrogations by police. In too many instances, officers can whisk away political opponents in broad daylight simply with a van pulled up to a sidewalk. Often, those kidnapped by the police are never heard from again.
Imagine that happening here where we’re all critics of the government.
There is a reason that doesn’t happen in the United States. It’s the Fourth Amendment and the protection of it by magistrate judges. The legal document alone would be meaningless without these judges zealously watching law enforcement for dangerous missteps.
Such missteps aren’t farfetched, either. Just last week, a judge disallowed the arrest of former Atlanta Hawks player Mike Scott and his brother on drug charges that resulted from a traffic stop. The judge concluded that a Banks County deputy sheriff did not have probable cause for pulling Scott over but instead was motivated by racial profiling. Turns out, the same deputy, which the Banks sheriff has since fired, had made 47 similar arrests, and 44 of them had been of blacks. He had also been fired from two previous law enforcement jobs.
The requirement for probable cause is what maintains all of our daily freedoms. It’s important and should not be eroded.
However, Coweta Magistrate Judge Robert Stokely is focused on the trees instead of the forest. He has a reputation among the law enforcement community for being nit-picky, as illustrated by the case of Joshua Alan Peterson. Last week, Peterson was arrested after officers alleged he fled from a traffic stop where he was suspected of driving under the influence.
Among the charges pending against Peterson are fleeing/attempting to elude, DUI, reckless driving and obstruction of an officer.
When he appeared before Stokely following the arrest, the judge released him without requiring monetary bail because a new state trooper, unaccustomed to that court’s paperwork predilection, left blank the “remarks” section of the four traffic tickets presented. Stokely used Peterson’s release to emphasize his insistence that a brief narrative of the case spell out the probable cause for the arrest.
In the hearing that Peterson skipped out on, Stokely said, “I cannot take an officer's assertion that a violation of the law has taken place.”
Of course, the narrative he was demanding is just that, an officer’s assertion that a violation of law had taken place.
Stokely should have gotten an oral statement from law enforcement in the case of a person suspected of a high-speed attempt to elude police before ordering his release. Such activity, if true, is a warning that a suspect will not only skip court if given the chance but could endanger the public – again – in the process. The whole point of requiring bail is to give a defendant more incentive to face justice or to keep him behind bars for the public’s safety.
Though officers don’t normally attend first appearance hearings, in this case, a quick phone call to track down the trooper or one of the deputies involved might have solved the problem.
Once Stokely actually heard from the deputies who pursued and arrested Peterson, additional charges were added and the misdemeanor fleeing charge was upgraded to a felony. Stokely ruled that, once Peterson is in custody, he will be held without bond.
Judge Stokely has a long record of dedicated service to the community. The respect the citizens hold for him included his election to the legislature. One bad call doesn’t tarnish any of that, but he should have learned a more valuable lesson than the new trooper he was trying to impress in this case.