Amanda Sammons: Out-Prosecuting Prosecutors from the Bench
Feb. 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Judge Amanda Sammons seems to have no problem forcing prosecutors to plow ahead with charges against innocent people who don’t pay their indigent defense counsel fees. Public defender William Jones is trying to change that:
Jones’ case added a new twist to the fee issue. Crystal D. Roberts was too poor to hire a lawyer. Jones was appointed to represent her. Citing a state law that allows a fee to be assessed to help offset the expense of providing public defender services to the poor, Sammons ordered Roberts to pay $50 after Roberts was charged in November with two misdemeanor prescription drug offenses.
Less than a week after her arrest, according to Jones’ motion, Roberts presented proof she had a prescription for the drugs found in her possession. District Attorney General Jared Effler’s office then filed a motion to dismiss the charges since she legally possessed the medication, court records show.
Sammons wasn’t about to leave it at that:
Sammons refused to drop the case unless Roberts paid the $50 fee. In an interview with the News Sentinel in December, Sammons insisted the fee is “not waivable,” although the law itself says a judge can waive it. And nowhere in the law does it require the fee to be assessed against someone who never used the public defender’s office.
Assessing a small fee against indigent defendants who apply for or use the services of a public defender is nothing new. Lots of places do it, and although there’s something quite problematic about the government charging poor people for something to which they’re constitutionally entitled, it does seem somewhat unusual for people to be denied a public defender altogether for failure to pay. As Sammons makes clear, however, the deterrent effect when it comes to people asserting their right to counsel is just the obvious problem with such fees. Sammons’s brand of injustice is something perhaps even the strongest proponents of Tennessee’s appointed counsel fees probably couldn’t have imagined.
First, Roberts’ case is special because she didn’t even need a public defender. She was charged for a lawyer she didn’t use, and ironically, by refusing to dismiss the case or waive the fee, it was Sammons who actually got the public defender involved. The prosecutor moved to dismiss within a week, after all, though the fact it didn’t happen immediately is of concern. It’s hard not to wonder why a public defender wasn’t there from the very start to argue that Roberts had valid prescriptions for the drugs the state claimed she possessed.
Second, it’s remarkable that Sammons is forcing the state to continue with a case it cannot win. She’s forcing the prosecutor to violate Tennessee’s Ethics Rule 3.8, which prevents a prosecutor from prosecuting a charge not supported by probable cause. Forcing a party to litigation to continue prosecuting a case against their will may also make for an amusing (but undoubtedly losing) Thirteenth Amendment involuntary servitude argument. Plus, there’s again no shortage of irony in the fact Sammons is forcing a government-funded prosecutor to continue with charges while a government-funded public defender defends them, consuming court resources for litigation and theoretically trial in an unwinnable case all in order to squeeze $50 out of someone who’s broke.
What Sammons is doing seems crazy and misguided, but constitutionality aside, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s prohibited by the letter of Tennessee law. So was the claim that a judge can waive it despite Sammons’s insistence that the fee is “not waivable” correct? Here’s the provision likely in question:
A defendant, who is provided with court-appointed counsel, including a defendant in a termination of parental rights case, shall be assessed by the court at the time of appointment a nonrefundable administrative fee in the amount of fifty dollars ($50.00). The administrative fee shall be assessed only one time per case and shall be waived or reduced by the court upon a finding that the defendant lacks financial resources sufficient to pay the fifty dollar ($ 50.00) fee.
It’s basically the same for a juvenile too, stating that the fee “shall be waived or reduced by the court upon a finding that the child and the child’s parents or legal guardians lack financial resources sufficient to pay the fee.”
Sammons could at least cobble together a plausible basis for her position. She could say that the law said “shall” with regard to assessing the fee against Roberts, so she had to do it. She could also claim that she only assessed it once, again complying with the law. To get around the “shall be waived or reduced” part, she simply has to say that her initial fee assessment was based on Roberts’s financial resources at the time, something that has not changed. Reading the law as only permitting waiver or reduction based on ability to pay, not innocence or lack of actual use of court-appointed counsel, is not entirely unreasonable given the text alone. Either way, however, the fee seems expressly waivable, though perhaps only under different circumstances, so Sammons is probably wrong about that at the very least.
Just because she maybe can doesn’t mean she should, though. And luckily, another judge took a different approach:
Sexton made short work of Roberts’ case.
“Granted,” he said as soon as Jones stood to argue his motion. “Granted. Granted.”
He declined to issue a blanket order to cover future cases, though he made clear how he will rule should Sammons continue to refuse to dismiss charges because of an administrative fee.
“Today, you win,” Sexton said. “You will win tomorrow. You will win the next day.”
One cynical view of the law is that it’s nothing more than what the judge in front of you says it is any given moment, and in Sammons and Sexton’s jurisdiction, that appears quite true with regard to that assessment. Sammons isn’t going to budge:
Sammons has said Sexton and other sessions court judges who do not adhere to her policy are wrong.
Those who end up in front of Sammons, innocence and non-use of an appointed lawyer notwithstanding, will have to suffer under her interpretation. They can only hope their cases eventually end up in front of Sexton or a like-minded colleague. Moreover, this may not be the only thing Sammons is doing that might make people hope for a different judge:
Sammons is the subject of a growing number of complaints, including one from a fellow judge, to the state Board of Judicial Conduct for actions that include the removal of children from their homes without legal grounds, altering a warrant to increase a woman’s charge without any hearing or request to do so and charging poor people a fee for using court-appointed lawyers when they instead hired private counsel and even when they were wrongfully accused.
Unfortunately, all of this was probably quite predictable. Sammons’s campaign for judge, after all, touted her prosecutor nickname of “the blue-eyed assassin” and the fact she spent “nearly every day of the past 10 years . . . seeking justice for victims of crime,” also noting her “low tolerance for foolishness” and “reputation as hard-nosed prosecutor who ‘goes for the jugular.'” Here was her goal running for judge:
If elected county judge, Mandy’s goal is to make the entire criminal justice system in Campbell County at the sessions and juvenile levels much more efficient and more respectful of the VICTIMS ~ NOT the criminals.
That she’d have little tolerance for those already deemed unworthy of respect should be no surprise at all. People get what they vote for, and Sammons has delivered in spades.