Supreme Court rules in Miller, Crisp cases

ATLANTA — The Georgia Supreme Court has reversed a lower court’s decision and ruled in favor of the Miller County Commission on a local law that would allow county commissioners to do business with the county under certain circumstances.

The court also determined that Stacy Fullwood of Crisp County was improperly denied the right to counsel when he entered a guilty plea on cocaine trafficking in Superior Court there in 1988.

In Monay’s Miller County ruling, written by Presiding Justice George Carley, the court found that changes the County Commission made in a local ordinance do not violate the state Constitution as some taxpayers had contended.

In June 2010, according to an overview provided by the Supreme Court, Parks Callan and two other county residents sued the commission after it amended a section of the local law that prohibits commissioners from transacting business with the county. The commissioners created an exception stating the prohibition would not apply if a majority of the board approved the transaction after determining that the goods, services or property could not be obtained for less and that the taxpayers’ interests would be served.

The commissioners also amended the section of the local ordinance that requires all bills be paid by check signed by the clerk. Under the change, checks could now be signed by any two of these officials: the clerk, the chairman or vice chairman, and the chair of the commission’s finance committee.

The trial court found the changes unconstitutional, ruling in favor of Callan and the taxpayers. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the trial court erred.

“We begin by recognizing that ‘[t]he power of county boards of commission in Georgia is not unlimited,’” the opinion states, quoting the Georgia Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Channell v. Houston. “However, ‘[t]he Georgia Constitution grants home rule to counties.’”

Under the Georgia Constitution, “a county may, as an incident of its home rule power, amend or repeal the local acts applicable to its governing authority.”

In a 14-page opinion, the Court analyzes the changes and concludes they neither supplant state law, as the trial court concluded one of the amendments did, nor do they violate the Constitution.

In the Crisp County case, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court’s ruling and determined that Fullwood’s guilty plea to drug charges in 1988 was invalid because the trial judge did not ensure that he understood his right to have a lawyer present during his plea.

According to briefs filed in the case, in 1988, Fullwood, 20 years old at the time, was brought before the Crisp County Superior Court to respond to charges of violating the Georgia Controlled Substances Act. Both the judge and prosecutor questioned Fullwood, a high school dropout who had no lawyer.

The judge advised Fullwood that he had a number of rights, including the right to plead not guilty, the right to a jury trial, and the right to a lawyer if he opted to go to trial. On a standard waiver form, Fullwood pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and was sentenced under the Georgia First Offender Act to 10 years on probation.

Twenty years later — in June 2008 — Fullwood filed a “petition for a writ of habeas corpus,” a civil proceeding available to those who have already been convicted that allows them another opportunity to show that their conviction or sentence is unconstitutional. Fullwood contended he had been denied his right to counsel at the plea hearing because he had not “voluntarily and knowingly” waived that right, making his conviction and sentence constitutionally invalid.

In January 2010, the habeas court denied his petition. The judge determined that Fullwood’s signature below a general waiver about one’s right to counsel proved Fullwood “voluntarily and knowingly” relinquished that right.

“We disagree,” Justice P. Harris Hines writes for the Court, finding “there is no question that the sentencing court never informed Fullwood in any fashion about his right to counsel during his plea.”

“In order for a waiver to be knowing and voluntary, the court must inform the accused of ‘the nature of the charges against him, of his right to be counseled regarding his plea, and of the range of allowable punishments,’” says today’s opinion, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2004 decision in Iowa v. Tovar. “The facts that Fullwood signed a generalized waiver form and was instructed that he had a right to counsel during a jury trial do not permit the conclusion that Fullwood made a knowing and voluntary waiver of counsel. Accordingly, it was error for the habeas court to conclude that Fullwood waived the right to be represented by counsel at the plea hearing.”