PC Jail

City, Bennett await Judge Wilkes’ ruling on temporary restraining order

A consent order is off the table.

That’s the most recent development in the lawsuit between the City of Blackshear and Sheriff Ramsey Bennett over the housing of Blackshear inmates in the county jail.

Attorneys for the city and for Sheriff Bennett were unable to reach an agreement regarding the language of a proposed consent order last week.

“We have been unable to reach an agreement on the language,” Rick Currie, Bennett’s attorney, told The Times Monday.

Currie confirmed there was a specific sticking point on the language, but declined further comment.

“I prefer not to get into it ... Being a former district attorney, I don’t like talking about things that are before the court,” he said.

“The city drafted and sent over a proposed consent order, but the parties weren’t able to reach a resolution,” Brandon Palmer, special counsel for the city, said.

Senior Judge E.L. Wilkes III will now be tasked with ruling on the city’s petition for a temporary restraining order (TRO) that would mandate Bennett accept all inmates arrested or charged by the City of Blackshear Police Department into the Pierce County jail.

Following a TRO hearing February 11, both parties tentatively agreed 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.

Currie filed his answer to the city’s petition Friday, February 19, after talks over a consent order fell apart.

Currie makes similar arguments in his answer to the city’s petition as he did before Judge Wilkes earlier this month, admitting Bennett has a legal duty to accept inmates arrested for an indictable offense, but “can require the presentation and proof of the charging document (i.e., a warrant),” but “no clear legal duty” to accept inmates charged with municipal offenses. Currie denies there is any likelihood of immediate or irreparable harm to the city that would necessitate Judge Wilkes grant their request for a 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.

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.

Bennett resumed accepting city inmates into the jail without those stipulations earlier this month, and testified at the TRO hearing he would continue to do so.

“Regardless of an agreement, we’ll take prisoners,” Bennett said.

The sheriff’s answer filed by Currie last week claims Bennett has “been willing to accept, has accepted and continues to accept, all arrestees of the Blackshear Police Department, with or without a warrant” since January 6, 2021.

Police Chief Chris Wright testified at the TRO hearing he was not aware BPD prisoners would be accepted without any stipulations until early February.

Read more coverage on this ongoing story in the December 16, 2020, January 20, January 27, February 3, 10 and 17th editions of The Blackshear Times, and on The Times’ website at www.theblacksheartimes.com.