Opinion

August 26, 2012

Justice denied

Murray County has a serious problem on its hands thanks to former chief magistrate Bryant Cochran.

Cochran stepped down recently after admitting that he pre-signed warrants for law enforcement officers.

The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission was investigating those actions along with allegations that Cochran made inappropriate sexual advances towards 36-year-old Angela Garmley of Chatsworth. Cochran’s resignation blocked the commission from holding formal hearings on those matters. But he may still face criminal charges. District Attorney Bert Poston has asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to look into the matter.

If Cochran had read the U.S. Constitution he would find the Fourth Amendment guarantees that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

The role of a judge is to determine whether law enforcement has probable cause before granting officers any warrant. As a judge and a former law enforcement officer himself, Cochran should have known this.

By pre-signing warrants, by not sitting in critical judgment of law enforcement before granting warrants, Cochran abrogated one of a judge’s most basic duties, denied some people one of their most basic rights and dealt a blow to our legal system.

And he may have dealt a huge blow to Murray County. Each person who was arrested or convicted based on one of those pre-signed warrants can likely demand a new trial, with the evidence collected under that warrant thrown out. And those persons may have a strong claim against the county for false arrest.

Yes, the county has insurance that may cover any civil suits filed by those individuals. Taxpayers may not have to pay the judgments in those lawsuits. But they’ll pay in the end through higher premiums.

In a statement when he resigned, Cochran accepted full responsibility for pre-signing warrants. But he doesn’t bear the full responsibility. Each law enforcement officer who accepted one of those warrants and filled it out knew that was illegal. And they did it anyway.

We do not yet know how many officers were involved or how long this was going on. But it’s difficult to believe it could have gone on for very long or involved more than one officer without others in the Murray County law enforcement community knowing about it.

Any officer, any court official, any elected official who knew about those warrants and didn’t speak out is just as responsible for them as those officers who used those warrants. They have a duty to enforce the law and uphold the Constitution and they failed to do that. They have a responsibility to speak out now and help the GBI investigation.

 

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