Georgia Supreme Court Blog

March 17, 2010

Court Majority: Sex Offender Registration Not Punishment, May be Applied to Non-Sexual Offense Against Minor

Filed under: Carol Hunstein, criminal law, Harold Melton, sex offenders — bce30064 @ 5:32 pm

In a 5-to-2 vote, the Supreme Court of Georgia has ruled against a man convicted of false imprisonment of a minor and upheld the state’s sex offender registration law as constitutional.

When Jake Rainer was 18, he and three others planned to rob a 17-year-old girl after arranging to meet her to buy some drugs. When she got into their car to complete the transaction, they drove away. They stopped twice, trying to steal her purse and push her out of the car. Eventually they succeeded. Witness identifications later led to the arrest of the four men.

In 2001, Rainer pleaded guilty in Fulton County to false imprisonment and robbery and was sentenced to 10 years, with five in prison and the rest on probation. After serving a year on probation, he learned for the first time he was required to register as a sex offender. See Rainer’s Online Sex Offender Profile. Rainer challenged the law’s application to his case because the crime he was convicted of did not involve any sexual activity. The State filed a motion to dismiss his constitutional challenge, and the trial court granted it, finding that the registration statute – Official Code of Georgia 42-1-12 – is constitutional. Rainer then appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the requirement he register as a sex offender constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” and violates his constitutional right to due process because it is overly inclusive.

But in today’s opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton (data), the majority states that Georgia’s sex offender registration requirements “are regulatory, and not punitive, in nature.”

“Specifically, because the registration requirements themselves do not constitute punishment, it is of no consequence whether or not one has committed an offense that is … sexual in nature before being required to register.” The law defines a sexual offender as anyone “[w]ho has been convicted of a criminal offense against a victim who is a minor or any dangerous sexual offense.”

“Under the statute, one only needs to have committed a … criminal offense against a victim who is a minor … in order to meet the statutory definition of … sexual offender for purposes of registration,” the majority states. The law is not overly inclusive, the majority finds. Rather, it “advances the State’s legitimate goal of informing the public for purposes of protecting children from those who would harm them.”

But in her dissent, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein (data) disagrees, finding the statute “unconstitutionally over-inclusive.”

“[T]he statutory scheme creating the sex offender registry seeks to protect children not from all harm, but from harm by those who have committed certain designated offenses,” the dissent says. “[A]lthough a sexual offense may occur during a kidnapping or a false imprisonment, such conduct would clearly be covered by other provisions of the statute. Rainer should not be characterized as a sex offender, she states in the dissent. “I am a parent. I am a grandparent. I care about the children of this state. But I am also obligated to care about the constitutional rights of all those affected by its laws.” Justice Robert Benham joins in the dissent.

Case Details:
Attorney for Appellant (Rainer): Ann Marie Fitz
Attorneys for Appellee (State): Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, Joseph Drolet, Sr., Asst. A.G., Paige Elizabeth Boorman, Asst. A.G.
Summary by Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office

More Information:

  • Georgia Supreme Court Opinions Database: Rainer v. The State (S09A1900)
  • Georgia Criminal Law Information: From the Center for Legal Solutions

  • March 9, 2010

    Court Reverses Dekalb Murder Convictions Due to Trial Court Evidence Errors

    Filed under: Carol Hunstein, criminal law, evidence, Harold Melton, murder — bce30064 @ 8:48 pm

    Steven Manley (Source: GA DOC)

    The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed the murder convictions and life prison sentences given to Steven Manley and Robert Allen for the 2007 shooting death of Emmett Whatley in DeKalb County.

    According to the evidence and briefs filed in the case, Whatley, known as “Black,” lived in a house on Chapman Circle with his 12-year-old son. He had a recording studio in the basement, and frequently had friends over to play music. Alexandria “Alex” Phillips was one of them. According to prosecutors, in January 2007, Phillips told her neighbors, Steven Manley and Cody Allen-Brown, about Whatley’s studio, and they asked if Whatley had any guns or money. She told them she knew he had money. Phillips testified that the two men then decided to “hit a lick,” or rob Whatley, and she helped them set it up. Her boyfriend, Robert Allen, was also involved. Around midnight on Feb. 8, 2007, the three men drove in Allen’s Lincoln Navigator SUV to Whatley’s house, calling Phillips from the car for directions. After watching Whatley leave with a woman, the men parked and waited until Whatley returned and got out of his car. When he tried to run, Allen-Brown shot him in the back. The men then left, and Whatley bled to death. The next morning, his son found him in the front yard with his keys and two cell phones. Phone records led police to Phillips, whose phone records and statements led them to the three men.

    In October 2008, a jury convicted Manley and Allen of murder and they were sentenced to life in prison plus five years. (Allen-Brown was also convicted of Whatley’s murder.)

    In a plea deal, Phillips pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and received a 6-year prison sentence in exchange for her testimony against the men. Phillips could have been convicted of Whatley’s murder along with the others and received a life sentence, which would require her to serve 30 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole. Her 6-year sentence, on the other hand, did not require her to spend any particular amount of time in prison before she was eligible for parole.

    Robert Allen (Source: GA DOC)

    In an opinion written by Justice Harold Melton (data), the Supreme Court found that the “evidence was sufficient to enable the jury to find Manley and Allen guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.” But the trial court made several errors, and “we must reverse in both cases.”

    In their appeal, attorneys for both Allen and Manley argued the trial court erred in not allowing them to fully cross examine Phillips about the deal she got in exchange for testifying against them. “Based on the facts of this case, we agree,” today’s opinion states. “Allen and Manley were prevented from fully exploring the possibility that Phillips was biased in favor of the State due to her parole disparity…,” the Court held. “This evidentiary whipsaw potentially misled the jurors, and, as a result, requires that both convictions be reversed.”

    In the decision, the high court overruled its 2003 decision in Hewitt v. State, along with any other cases that relied on it, to the extent that they could be interpreted to mean “that a witness may never be cross-examined regarding eligibility for parole in order to show bias in favor of the State.”

    The Supreme Court also found that the trial court erred in restricting the cross-examination of the informant who implicated Allen-Brown in the killing to determine whether he might be biased in favor of the State. “The co-defendants should have been allowed to question the informant about the basis of his first offender plea for these purposes,” the opinion states.

    Finally, the trial court should have suppressed Manley’s statement to police that he was in Whatley’s subdivision the night of the murder to buy drugs. More than once, the record shows, Manley stated he wanted a lawyer present, yet detectives continued to interrogate him. “Under these facts, Manley unambiguously requested the presence of his lawyer, and any questioning should have stopped immediately,” the opinion stated.

    In a special concurrence, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein (data) agreed with the final judgment but takes issue with the overruling of case law. “No reasonable person could possibly interpret Hewitt v. State…as the majority does, i.e., as supporting the proposition that a witness may … never” be cross-examined regarding eligibility for parole. Nor can it cite to any case in which Hewitt was so interpreted to support this proposition. Accordingly, there is no basis whatsoever for the majority’s insistence on overruling this case…” Justice P. Harris Hines joined in the special concurrence.

    More Information:
    Georgia Supreme Court Opinions Database: MANLEY V. THE STATE (S10A0136), ALLEN V. THE STATE (S10A0137)
    Georgia Criminal Law Reference Page: From the Center for Legal Solutions

    Summary by the Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office
    Attorney for Appellants (Manley and Allen): Gerard Kleinrock, DeKalb Public Defender
    Attorneys for Appellee (State): Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, District Attorney, Lenora Grant, Dep. Chief Asst. D.A., Thurbert Baker, Attorney General, Mary Beth Westmoreland, Dep. A.G., Paula Smith, Sr. Asst. A.G., Chris Johnson, Asst. A.G

    February 2, 2010

    Waive the Marital Estate Goodbye: Court Deeply Divided on Divorce Procedure

    Filed under: Carol Hunstein, Family Law, Harold Melton — bce30064 @ 3:42 am

    In a split 4-to-3 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against a White County woman who claims the lower court was wrong to conduct the final hearing in her divorce without her being present.

    The decision reveals a deep divide among the justices on a fundamental matter of family law: how trial courts are to conduct hearings to finalize divorces. It is the first Family Law Pilot Project decision in over a year not unanimously decided. Data on Family Law Pilot Project Cases.

    According to the record, in June 2008, Otis Dan Ellis filed for divorce from Bonnie Lou Ellis, his wife of 14 years. She was not represented at the time by a lawyer, and she failed to file any pleadings in response to her husband’s complaint.

    Subsequently, Mrs. Ellis hired Hammond Law as her attorney, although he too did not file a response. According to Mr. Law, the husband’s attorney (Brett Turner), assured Law that Mr. Turner would notify him when the final hearing in the divorce was scheduled. But by the time the hearing occurred, the husband had hired a second attorney, Carol Sheppard, who claimed she had no knowledge of any agreement to notify the wife’s attorney. A week after entering the case, Sheppard filed a motion to enter a final judgment of divorce based on the husband’s pleadings and without holding a hearing on the evidence. The trial court granted the motion, making the divorce decree final.

    In February 2009, Law filed a motion for new trial on behalf of the wife, based on the alleged agreement made by the husband’s first attorney to provide him with notice of any final hearing date. The superior court denied the motion, finding that under the law, the wife had waived the right to receive notice by failing to file responsive pleadings.

    “Therefore, in this case, Wife waived any notice regarding the final hearing by failing to file a responsive pleading, and the trial court properly denied her motion for new trial,” according to the majority opinion, written by Justice Harold Melton (data). Georgia law states that “the failure of a party to file pleadings in an action shall be deemed to be a waiver by him or her of all notices, including notices of time and place of trial and entry of judgment…”

    As a general rule, the majority opinion states, “when a defendant in a divorce action fails to file defensive pleadings, the divorce is, by definition, uncontested. Failure to file defensive pleadings constitutes waiver of notice of the hearing on the final decree.” The opinion continues: “The bottom line in this case is that the trial court had evidence on which to base its ruling.” As a result, there was no judgment by default in this case, which state law prohibits in divorce cases.

    But in dissent, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein (data) writes that what the trial court did “was clear error.” It entered judgment based solely on the husband’s motion without holding a hearing on the evidence. The only evidence was his two-page complaint and an affidavit about his finances, which provided no evidence regarding the couple’s joint property.

    “Notwithstanding this dearth of evidence, the trial court, apparently of the belief that Wife’s failure to file responsive pleadings entitled Husband to decide how the parties’ property should be divided, unquestioningly approved the divorce decree drafted by Husband’s attorney,” the dissent says. “Not surprisingly, the decree awarded Husband essentially the entire marital estate… Simply stated, the trial court gave Husband everything he wanted, without any evidence to support a finding that such division was equitable.” Furthermore, the dissent says, the “swift efforts” by the husband’s second attorney to obtain a final judgment without notice to the wife or her attorney “appear alarmingly calculated, if not deliberately blindsiding.”

    “In sum, because the divorce decree is unsupported by evidence, and because the manner of resolution of this case violated basic notions of fairness and professionalism, I must respectfully dissent.” The Chief Justice’s dissent was joined by Presiding Justice George Carley (data) and Justice Robert Benham (data).

    More Information:
    Georgia Supreme Court Database: ELLIS V. ELLIS (S09F1798) : Full Text and Visual Summary

    Summary by the Georgia Supreme Court Public Information Office
    Attorney for Appellant (Bonnie): George Law, III
    Attorney for Appellee (Otis): Carol Sheppard, Vic Hill, Brad MacDonald

    Legal Resources:
    Georgia Divorce and Family Law Information: From the Center for Legal Solutions

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