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Georgia Sheriff Must Give Revenue from Prisoner Phone Calls to County

Georgia Sheriff Must Give Revenue from Prisoner Phone Calls to County

by David M. Reutter

The Georgia Court of Appeals has held that a sheriff must turn over to the county all revenue from a profit-sharing prisoner telephone contract. The ruling upholds an order of declaratory relief granted to Lincoln County against Sheriff Gerald S. Lawson.

In 2003, former Sheriff Edwin Bentley entered into a contract with Evercom Systems, Inc. to provide telephone services to prisoners at the Lincoln County jail. In return, Evercom agreed to pay the sheriff a commission of 38% of the revenue derived from the prisoners’ collect calls, which amounted to $15,000 to $16,000 a year.

Bentley turned these proceeds over to Lincoln County’s general fund, which the County Commission used, in part, to pay for the prisoners’ care and for the operation and maintenance of the jail. The anticipated revenue was used to calculate and partially fund the sheriff’s budget.

When Lawson took office in 2005, he continued that practice. In January 2006 he amended the phone contract to allow him to purchase pre-paid calling cards to sell to prisoners. At some point in early 2006, Lawson stopped turning the phone commissions over to the county and began to deposit them into an account under his exclusive control.

There were no allegations that Lawson was improperly using the money for his personal benefit, but the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners demanded he turn the money over to its general fund. After Lawson refused, the County sought declaratory relief in superior court. The court granted the County’s petition, ordering Lawson to turn over the phone revenue. Sheriff Lawson appealed.

Although Lawson “is an elected, constitutional officer [who] is subject to the charge of the General Assembly and is not an employee of the County Commission,” the county has “original and exclusive jurisdiction” over certain matters, the Court of Appeals held. Specifically, “the law grants to a county commission a broad discretion to exercise control over public property, and dictates that this discretion will not be interfered with by the courts absent clear abuse.”

Under Georgia law, the county has a duty to maintain and furnish the jail, and “to maintain the inmate, furnishing him food, clothing, and any needed medical and hospital attention.” To fulfill that responsibility, the county commissioners have “a duty to adopt a budget making reasonable and adequate provision for the personnel and equipment necessary to enable the sheriff to perform his duties of enforcing the law and preserving the peace.”

The question in this case was whether a sheriff may use county property, facilities or other resources to earn revenue independent from the county budgeting process, then keep that revenue for use by the sheriff’s department. The appellate court held Sheriff Lawson had no such authority.

“First, revenue generated using county property, facilities, or other resources is itself county property.” The Court also said that “although a sheriff is authorized by the legislature to collect certain fees, such as fees for transporting prisoners, summoning witnesses, attending court, etc., the relevant Code section provides that ‘all such fees shall be turned over to the county treasurer or fiscal officer of the county.’” Thus, the appellate court affirmed the superior court’s order.

While the County Commission was pleased with the result, it was upset that it will have to pay Lawson’s attorney’s fees in addition to its own estimated fees of $20,000. “In these uncertain economic times, it is unfortunate that the sheriff forced tens of thousands of hard-earned tax dollars to be spent on a lawsuit and an appeal, dealing with an issue already clarified by law,” said Commission Chairman Walker Norman.

Not satisfied with the adverse appellate ruling, Lawson sought certiorari review in the Georgia Supreme Court, which was denied on October 27, 2008. See: Lawson v. Lincoln County, 292 Ga.App. 527, 664 S.E.2d 900 (Ga.App. 2008).

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Related legal case

Lawson v. Lincoln County