CIty vs. Bennett

Judge gavel with dollars, books on wooden desk close up.

Bennett agrees to accept all BPD inmates while case moves ahead

The City of Blackshear and Sheriff Ramsey Bennett have tentatively agreed to a consent order to house Blackshear inmates, eliminating the need for a  temporary restraining order,  but the city and the sheriff will continue to hash it  out in court.

Attorneys for the city and for Sheriff Ramsey Bennett interviewed witnesses and argued their case for three hours before Senior Judge E.L. Wilkes at a hearing Thursday afternoon, but Wilkes declined to rule immediately on the city’s request for a temporary restraining order that would mandate Bennett accept all inmates arrested or charged by the City of Blackshear Police Department into the Pierce County jail.

The Times learned Friday, however, both parties agreed after the hearing to sign a consent order detailing Bennett’s verbal agreement at the hearing to accept all inmates from Blackshear Police Department without requiring a warrant be issued prior to booking.

As of The Times’ press deadline, that consent order had not yet been filed with the court, but if a consent order is finalized, there would presumably be no need for Judge Wilkes to rule on the TRO.

Disagreement over what the city pays for housing inmates and who has the authority to negotiate that rate will most likely be the next matters debated in the case.

“Regardless of an agreement, we’ll take prisoners,” Bennett said on the stand last week.

When questioned by his attorney, Bennett indicated he would accept BPD inmates with or without a warrant, and will also take inmates charged only with municipal offenses. Bennett reportedly began accepting all city inmates into the jail again earlier this month waiving conditions he had implemented in January.

Brandon Palmer, special counsel for Blackshear, confirmed Friday he had presented a consent order to Bennett’s attorney, Rick Currie, for review.

“The city doesn’t want to waste taxpayer money if it’s not necessary. At the end of the hearing yesterday, we offered to the judge to prepare a proposed consent order. We’ve done that and sent it over to the Sheriff’s counsel,” Palmer said.

Currie indicated he would sign the consent order.

“The consent order basically says, ‘judge instead of you ruling on everything … we’re willing to continue to accept these arrestees until this is all fleshed out’,” Currie told The Times.  “(The consent order) is putting that in writing.”

As of The Times’ press deadline, that consent order had not yet been filed with the court, but if a consent order is finalized, there would presumably be no need for Judge Wilkes to rule on the TRO.

Wilkes is reviewing case law presented by both parties.

“I’ll consider what I’ve heard,” Wilkes said at the close of last week’s hearing. “I’m going to read the cases y’all have given me.”

Currie has until February 21 to file an answer to the city’s initial petition for a temporary restraining order.

“By doing this consent order, the issue that is between the parties is not real urgent anymore,” Currie says.

Background

Most recently, the city has paid $35/day per inmate as set forth in two agreements  — a 2013 intergovernmental agreement signed by city and county officials and Sheriff Bennett, and a 2018 Service Delivery Strategy (SDS) adopted by the county and city.

Bennett sent a letter to city officials in September 2020 indicating he intended to terminate the 2013 agreement at year end unless it could be renegotiated. He requested an increase to $45/day. Counsel for the city argues they are bound by the $35/day rate established in the SDS and Bennett does not have the authority to change the rate or turn inmates away.

When a new agreement was not reached by year end, a city inmate facing a domestic violence charge was not accepted into the jail until a warrant was issued and a bond hearing conducted. The inmate was booked briefly in Ware County until those processes were completed and then returned to Pierce County.

Mayor Kevin Grissom and Police Chief Chris Wright sat alongside Palmer at last week’s hearing. Bennett was accompanied by Currie and County Attorney Franklin Rozier Jr.

Wright, Grissom and Bennett were all called to the witness stand during the hearing as was Blackshear Police Officer Greg Nettles who recounted that December 31, 2020 in which he was denied entry into the Pierce County jail.

County Chairman Neal Bennett, County Manager Jason Rubenbauer and Blackshear council members Keith Brooks and Linda Gail Dennison also attended the hearing, observing from the gallery. A few other members of the public attended the hearing as well.

Why a TRO?

Palmer argued the December 31 incident required Nettles to spend an hour out of the county, leaving only one officer on duty within the city limits which presented a risk to the community. And, Palmer contended Bennett’s sworn testimony at the hearing was not sufficient.

“He swore he would accept all inmates from the City of Blackshear Police Department whether or not he gets paid. We had to bring this petition in the first place because that was refused on December 31,” Palmer told the judge. “I would argue the community was put at risk that night when an officer had to drive an hour out of his way when there was only one other officer on duty.”

The sheriff is required by law to accept inmates charged with indictable offenses. Neither party contests that fact in the case. But, Palmer adds the sheriff’s unwillingness to accept someone charged with an indictable offense would be a misdemeanor per state law.

Palmer further argued the SDS is binding and enforceable and requires the sheriff to continue accepting city inmates charged with municipal offenses (misdemeanor charges) as well as indictable offenses prosecuted through State or Superior Court.

“He has no authority to contract for use of the county jail. That authority only lies with the county,” Palmer said. “Because there is an agreement, the sheriff has a duty … he needs to be held to that duty, not only by statute, but by contract.”

Judge Wilkes questioned whether an unsafe situation was in fact created when Nettles left the county, noting BPD employs 18-20 police officers.

“We weren’t given notice,” Palmer replied.

Currie argued Palmer had not adequately proven the December 31 incident showed immediate and irreparable damage, reporting BPD had only arrested four inmates  — two for felony charges and two misdemeanors  — since Bennett terminated the 2013 agreement at year end.

“We don’t think they’ve shown immediate, irreparable injury,” Currie said. “He’s (Bennett) assured the court he would take all inmates. We don’t need a temporary restraining order signed. This is just an attempt by them to embarrass the elected sheriff.”

“Basically he’s saying we have to know the future. That’s not what the law requires. We have to show there is a risk of inherent, irreparable harm,” Palmer countered. “We just have to show there’s a risk because it happened once. It’s not enough that he (Bennett) sit up there, put his hand up and swear that he’s not going to do it because he already failed to do his duty.”

Currie also argued the powers given to the sheriff as a constitutional officer are widespread and beyond the control of the county commissioners. The sheriff is a distinct legal entity, Currie says.

“He cannot be bound by the county on the operations of the jail. That’s his duty,” Currie told the judge.

Bennett made a similar statement while on the stand.

“I am the sheriff of this county. As so, I’m the keeper of the county jail. How can you be the keeper of the jail and you have no authority over it?” he said.

The matter of how much the sheriff can or cannot charge to house city prisoners came up several times throughout the hearing, and Wilkes took notice. Although, Palmer and Currie both indicated that was a matter to be dealt with after debating the TRO.

“It sounds like we’re arguing over money,” Wilkes interjected at one point.

County Attorney Franklin Rozier Jr. remained silent until the end of the hearing and then told Wilkes he thought the matter “just a financial issue” that should be mediated.

“If they want to litigate $5,000 a year to the Georgia Supreme Court I think we’re in bad shape,” Rozier Jr. said.

Read more coverage on this ongoing story in the December 16, 2020, January 20, January 27, February 3 and February 10 editions of The Blackshear Times, and on The Times’ website at www.theblacksheartimes.com.‘This is a test quote for possible placement is in a news story.’

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