On Wednesday, September 5, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit in the state of Georgia on behalf of 22-year-old Cleopatra Harris against the city of Columbus, a number of police officers and judge Michael Cielinski after Harris was ordered to pay a fine for refusing to press charges against her boyfriend, who allegedly assaulted her during a violent domestic confrontation. According to city policy, victims of domestic violence who refuse to participate in the prosecution of their assailant must pay a minimum administrative fee of at least $50 to compensate for the time police officials spent investigating the case. The lawsuit also alleges if the fine is not paid within a specified amount of time, an arrest warrant will be issued for the victim.
Having already indicated to police she did not want to press charges, Harris was told she must still appear in court, which she did. The suit alleges Harris responded yes to questions regarding whether or not the police testimony given in court was true. However, when judge Cielinski asked her if she had anything else to say, she again replied she did not wish to press charges; as a result, Cielinksi ordered her to pay a mandatory fine of $150. Harris said she did not have the money to pay the fee that day and was given a document by the judge, which she was instructed to sign, indicating she had one week to come up with the cash or face a warrant for her arrest.
The suit further contends as she walked away from the county clerk’s window upon submitting the form, one of the officers who responded to her second 911 call grabbed and pushed her face forward against the wall, handcuffed her and told her she was being arrested for providing false information to a police officer. She was later bailed out of jail by her boyfriend, who paid $212.50, which the suit claims went toward her fee.
Things began to unravel for Harris back in June when her boyfriend allegedly became violent over dirty dishes that were left in the sink. According to the statement given to police, he became enraged and proceeded to grab her around the neck, slam her to the ground and punch her in the face. He soon fled the scene and she called 911 but left the dwelling before police arrived fearing her boyfriend would return first. The following day, a friend of hers saw the bruises and wounds she sustained in the alleged attack and urged her to call 911 again. When the officers arrived a second time, they took photos of her injuries, which clearly showed bruises on her neck and face, swelling on her forehead and numerous scratches on her chest, neck, and back.
It is not unusual for domestic abuse victims to decline pressing chargers against their attackers out of fear for their own safety, however, the lawsuit claims there was no reason for her arrest, because none of what she relayed to officers about the alleged attack was untrue or malicious in nature, nor did she lie under oath. One of the lawyers representing Harris, Sarah Geraghty, said the mandatory fees handed down to abuse victims “sounds like something out of the 19th century; it’s a holdover from an era in which women were blamed for male violence.” Not only that, it also re-victimizes the victim. How does it make any sense that a victim is ever held responsible for crimes committed against them?
Along with those charged, the suit also lists three other cases involving judge Cielinski telling domestic violence victims they would be charged a compulsory fee if they refused to press charges against their alleged aggressors. Cielinski’s attorney would only say his client has not yet been served, declining to comment on anything further regarding the case.