Council of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta Adopts Resolution Sponsored by St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church

RESOLUTION BY THE 2016 ANNUAL COUNCIL OF THE DIOCESE OF ATLANTA

Praying for “leaders of our communities, our church, our country and our world, that they may make decisions that are in accord with God’s commandments that bring life, justice and peace,” Reclaiming Hope through Remembering (Macon, Georgia Oct. 22, 2016), and that they may have all necessary resources of courage, wisdom, and steadfastness to overcome inertia, it is

RESOLVED that the Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta urge the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council to look to the experience of the 22 States that have already reclassified traffic offenses out of the criminal code and to persevere with the effort to bring this reform to Georgia.

RESOLVED that the Secretary of Council be directed to send a copy of this resolution, with Explanation, to the co-chairs of the Reform Council and to the members of the Reform Council and its subcommittees. 

EXPLANATION

I. Some history.

In 2011-12, the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council recommended to the Georgia General Assembly that certain traffic offenses be converted from criminal offenses to civil infractions, or violations. At that time, the Reform Council recommendation was presented largely as a cost-saving measure that holds the potential to unclog the courts while preserving or even enhancing public safety.

In 2012, the Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta adopted the following resolution:

Resolved, that the 106th Annual Council of the Diocese of Atlanta support the decriminalization of minor traffic offenses in the state of Georgia, turning them into civil violations . . . .

The Reform Council’s criminal-to-civil conversion recommendation was not adopted in the ensuing legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly.

Final as passed.2016 diocesan resolution

In early 2016, the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council signaled that it was ready to take up the proposal again, and the topic was consigned to a subcommittee of the Reform Council considering ways to reduce Georgia’s extraordinarily high probation rate. Georgia has more people and more cases on probation for longer than virtually any other State in the Union. Many of those probation cases are resting on traffic offenses because traffic offenses, even minor ones, continue to be defined as crimes in Georgia. Indeed, many of the traffic-offense probation cases are pay-only probation, a particularly disputed form of probation.

In October-November 2016, the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council indicated that it will not reach the proposal in its upcoming report of recommendations, but also suggested that it may take up the proposal in a dedicated way as part of the Reform Council’s work in 2017.

II. Effect of reclassifying traffic offenses (or some of them) out of the criminal code.

After Ferguson and the spotlight that was shone on St. Louis County and its traffic courts and after Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Sam Dubose, and many others, we can see that the proposal to decriminalize traffic offenses or, better said, to reclassify them out of the criminal code, is as much a matter of liberty as it is a cost-saving or efficiency measure. We now have a greater understanding that the proposal to reclassify holds potential to reduce our society’s reliance upon force and holds potential to curb implicit (and explicit) bias in at least two ways.

A. Two contexts: 1) traffic stop and 2) incarceration/correctional control.

1. Traffic stops. When traffic violations are defined as criminal offenses, police have wide discretion – too wide – ranging:

  • from doing nothing;
  • to issuing a mere warning;
  • to issuing a citation with a court date;
  • o issuing, in some cases, a citation with a fix-it date;
  • all the way to conducting a full-fledged arrest followed by jailing and a demand for cash bail as a condition to release from custody.

This range of discretion is highly subject to uncontrollable abuse where many motorists may receive at most a mere warning while a few motorists may be singled out for arrest and taken into custody. Or where the police officer – suggesting that he might have issued a mere warning, but choosing to construe the motorist’s assertion of her rights as Contempt of Cop – escalates the encounter by applying force (and threatening more, a lighting up!) and by conducting a full arrest followed by jailing. Yes, we remember Sandra Bland. See http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000003815285/what-was-legal-in-sandra-blandsarrest.html?nytmobile=0

2. Link to mass incarceration. When traffic offenses, even minor ones, are defined as crimes, there are some three possibilities for correctional control:

? pre-trial detention (See, e.g., A Surreptitious Courtroom Video Prompts Changes in a Georgia Town, N.Y. Times (Sept. 4, 2015) (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/05/us/asurreptitious-courtroom-video-prompts-changes-in-a-georgia-town.html))

? probation

? possibility of jail sentence

Indeed, Georgia, where traffic offenses (even minor ones) remain defined as crimes, has by some measures a larger percentage of its population under correctional control than any other State in the Union.

B. Effects of reform: Structural de-escalation of traffic stops, structural curbing of bias, and building down mass incarceration.

If failure to signal a lane change were to be converted to noncriminal status, consider how such an encounter might unfold: Even assuming the motorist asserted her innocence, the most the officer could do would be to issue a citation with a date for making an appearance at a proceeding that would be civil, or administrative, in nature. As a noncriminal violation, there would be no authority for an arrest, for assaulting and grabbing, for throwing to the ground, for handcuffing, for booking and jailing against cash-bail demand, and for impounding the vehicle. As a noncriminal violation, even assuming the motorist asserted her innocence, the police-citizen encounter would be soon concluded once the citation, with the appearance date, had been issued. And the motorist would be on her way again.

Indeed, fully 22 States, not including Texas (where Sandra Bland was stopped), nor Georgia, have decriminalized traffic offenses by converting them from criminal offenses to civil infractions. J.B. Woods, Decriminalization, Police Authority, and Routine Traffic Stops, 62 U.C.L.A. LAW REVIEW 672, 698-99 (2015). “In these states, noncriminal traffic violations are punishable by fine only with no possibility of immediate incarceration.” Id. (footnote omitted). With no possibility of immediate incarceration: the police-citizen encounter is structurally deescalated, one might say.

Twenty-two States have shown (over a period spanning, in the case of some States, more than three decades) that it is entirely possible to regulate traffic behavior, such as alleged failure to signal a lane change (Sandra Bland), and equipment failure, such as a broken tail/brake light (Walter Scott), while preserving public safety, and even collecting revenue through civil fines, all without reliance upon force or the threat of force and without reliance uponincarceration/correctional control or the threat of same. We urge the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council to look to the experience of these 22 States and to persevere with the proposal to reclassify traffic offenses, a proposal that holds such great potential to make our State of Georgia a more civilized place.