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Appellants Margarita Gomez and Alejandro Huitron challenged their convictions for felony murder and other crimes related to injuries to and the resulting death of their three-year-old daughter, Esmerelda. The Georgia Supreme Court vacated three of each Appellant’s convictions (Counts 4, 11, and 16) to correct sentencing errors, but rejected Appellants’ many other contentions and affirmed their remaining convictions. View "Gomez v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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The constitutional doctrine of sovereign immunity forbids Georgia courts to entertain a lawsuit against the State without its consent. This case began in 2012, not long after the adoption of House Bill 954, which concerned medical procedures for the termination of pregnancies. Eva Lathrop, Carrie Cwiak, and Lisa Haddad are physicians licensed to practice in Georgia. In their petition, the plaintiff-physicians alleged that House Bill 954 violated the Georgia constitution in several respects. Based on their allegations, the plaintiff-physicians sought a declaratory judgment that certain provisions of House Bill 954 were unconstitutional, and they sought injunctive relief to restrain the defendant-state officers from enforcing House Bill 954. The trial court granted a motion to dismiss these claims, and the plaintiff-physicians appealed dismissal of their petition. The Georgia Supreme Court held that the doctrine of sovereign immunity extends generally to suits against the State, its departments and agencies, and its officers in their official capacities for injunctive and declaratory relief from official acts that are alleged to be unconstitutional. In so holding, however, the Court recognized the availability of other means by which aggrieved citizens may obtain relief from unconstitutional acts, including prospective relief from the threatened enforcement of unconstitutional laws. View "Lathrop v. Deal" on Justia Law

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In 2006, Kenneth Berzett pled guilty to child molestation, and in 2009, the Sexual Offender Registration Review Board classified him as a sexually dangerous predator. Berzett petitioned the superior court for judicial review of his classification, and he simultaneously filed a petition for declaratory judgment, alleging that OCGA 42-1-14 was unconstitutional. Furthermore, he sought injunctive relief against enforcement or application of the electronic monitoring requirement required by the statute. As to the petition for judicial review, the superior court affirmed the Board’s classification of Berzett and denied his request for relief, and Berzett did not appeal the superior court’s decision. Meanwhile, the Board filed a motion to dismiss the declaratory judgment action. After the final decision on the petition for judicial review, the Board asserted in a supplement to its motion to dismiss that Berzett’s request for declaratory judgment had become moot because there was no longer an active controversy between Berzett and the Board, any ruling on the constitutionality of OCGA 42-1-14 would have no practical effect on Berzett, and he no longer faced uncertainty as to any future undirected action. Although the superior court dismissed one of Berzett’s constitutional claims, it denied the Board’s motion to dismiss as to all other claims, deciding that, inter alia, those claims were not moot and a petition for declaratory judgment was a proper vehicle for raising them. On subsequent cross-motions for summary judgment, the superior court granted summary judgment to the Board on one constitutional claim but granted summary judgment to Berzett on all of his other constitutional claims. The superior court held that Berzett was not subject to the electronic monitoring obligations imposed on sexually dangerous predators and issued a writ of prohibition against the Board and its officers and agents that prohibited them from requiring Berzett to wear or pay for GPS monitoring pursuant to the statute. The Board appealed, and the Supreme Court reversed and remanded for dismissal, finding the trial court erred in deciding the constitutional arguments because there was no justiciable controversy, and the relief requested by Berzett would have no effect on the Board’s already-final and completed act of the risk of classification of Berzett or on any other right or responsibility of the Board towards him. View "Sexual Offender Registration Review Board v. Berzett" on Justia Law

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The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to the Court of Appeals in this matter to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in affirming Robert Heatherly’s misdemeanor conviction. Heatherly and Donald Lewis Malone worked at a Dalton Paper Products, Inc. industrial plant. Officials discovered that certain materials were missing from a secured area of the plant, and the plant manager received an anonymous telephone call informing him that Malone was stealing from the plant. Law enforcement interviewed Malone who confessed to selling the stolen materials, and that Heatherly provided the materials. Both men were charged with theft by taking, and as part of a plea agreement, Malone testified at Heatherly’s trial. Heatherly appealed, and argued in his sole enumeration of error to the Court of Appeals was that because he had originally been charged with theft by taking property with a value of more than $500.00, regardless of the eventual proof of the value of the stolen property, and regardless of his eventual sentence, his case should have been considered a “felony case” for purposes of OCGA 24-14-8, which provides that the “testimony of a single witness is generally sufficient to establish a fact [but in]felony cases where the only witness is an accomplice, the testimony of a single witness shall not be sufficient.” He contended that under the State’s evidence and the trial court’s judgment, Malone had to be considered an accomplice of Heatherly’s, and that there was no evidence corroborating Malone’s testimony that Heatherly was involved in the theft of the materials from the plant. Finding that the Court of Appeals was correct in rejecting Heatherly’s assertion that, in this case, the testimony of a single witness accomplice had to be corroborated, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Heatherly v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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This case concerned OCGA 36-11-1 and a split of opinions in two controlling case law precedents decided by the Georgia court of Appeals. In In re Estate of Leonard, 783 SEd2 470 (2016), Joe Leonard, Jr. allegedly sustained injuries while riding as a passenger aboard a Whitfield County Transit Services bus. Leonard hired a lawyer; his lawyer sent a letter to Robert Smalley, an attorney in Dalton, Georgia. Although Smalley was engaged in private practice, he also served as the County Attorney for Whitfield County, a position to which he was appointed prior to his receipt of Leonard’s letter. In that letter, Leonard’s lawyer referred to the injuries that Leonard allegedly sustained in January, and he asked that Smalley accept the letter as a presentment of Leonard’s claim against the County. The County ultimately moved for summary judgment under OCGA 36-11-1 claiming that Leonard never properly presented his claim, and as such, was barred. The County acknowledged the letter Leonard’s lawyer sent to Smalley, but argued that was not a proper presentment because Smalley was not an in-house county attorney. The Georgia Court of Appeals said in Coweta County v. Cooper, 733 SE2d 348) (2012), that presentment may properly be made to the county attorney, but only if the county attorney is employed by the county in house. In this case, the Court of Appeals distinguished between inside and outside county attorneys, holding that presentment to an outside county attorney was not a proper presentment. The Georgia Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari to review the decision in Leonard, and reversed, holding that presentment to the county attorney (inside or outside) was presentment for the purposes of OCGA 36-11-1. View "Croy v. Whitfield County" on Justia Law

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Joshua Martin sustained life-changing injuries in a brutal attack at a bus stop outside the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park in 2007. A jury determined that Six Flags was liable for those injuries, along with the four named individual defendants who perpetrated the attack. The trial court apportioned the jury’s $35 million verdict between the parties, assigning 92% against Six Flags and 2% each against the four assailants. On cross-appeals by Six Flags and Martin, a majority of the twelve-member Court of Appeals found no error in the jury’s determination regarding Six Flags’ liability but concluded that the trial court had erred in its pretrial rulings regarding apportionment of fault, necessitating a full retrial. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine: (1) whether Six Flags could properly be held liable for the injuries inflicted in this attack; and (2) assuming liability was proper, whether the trial court’s apportionment error does indeed require a full retrial. After review, the Supreme Court concluded: (1) because the attack that caused Martin’s injuries began while both he and his assailants were on Six Flags property, Six Flags’ liability was not extinguished simply because Martin stepped outside the property’s boundaries while attempting to distance himself from his attackers; and (2) the trial court’s apportionment error did not require a full retrial, but rather required retrial only for the apportionment of damages. View "Martin v. Six Flags Over Georgia II, L.P." on Justia Law

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In February 2010, Marion Hayes was charged with burglary, aggravated assault, possession of tools for commission of a crime, and obstruction of a police officer. The State filed notice of its intention to seek recidivist punishment under OCGA § 17-10-7 (a) and (c), based upon three previous burglary convictions. Hayes filed a pro se motion for an out-of-time appeal, which was granted, and he appealed pro se to the Court of Appeals. That court found that the trial court, by telling Hayes, “if you were sentenced to 20 years you will serve every day of that in prison,” and “you are facing 20 years and you would serve every day of it if you are found guilty. And that was the sentence imposed by the court,” failed to inform Hayes that part of his sentence could be probated or suspended. It thus concluded that the trial court “effectively advised Hayes that it had no intention of probating or suspending any portion of his sentence if he proceeded to trial, stating that he would spend ‘every day of [the 20-year sentence] in prison.’ And this impermissible participation by the trial court in the plea-negotiation process ‘rendered the resulting guilty plea involuntary.’” Hayes’ conviction was thus reversed and the case remanded for a new plea or trial. The Georgia Supreme Court found that the Court of Appeals misinterpreted the trial court’s colloquy and the applicable law, and reversed its judgment. View "Georgia v. Hayes" on Justia Law

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A jury found appellant Dale El Smith guilty of felony murder and two counts of cruelty to a person age 65 or older in connection with the 2014 death of Arthur Pelham. On appeal, Smith argued there was insufficient evidence to support her convictions and that she received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded after review of this matter that neither contention had merit, and affirmed. View "Smith v. Georgia" on Justia Law

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At issue in this case was the meaning of the term “motor fuel taxes” as used in the Georgia Constitution, Article III, Sec. IX, Par. IV(b). A trucking industry association and three individual motor carriers challenged local sales and use taxes on motor fuels, the revenues of which were not used solely for public roads and bridges. They argued that these taxes fell within the meaning of “motor fuel taxes” under the Motor Fuel Provision and, therefore, the revenues from these taxes (or an amount equal to that revenue) had to be allocated to the maintenance and construction of public roads and bridges. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint because the history and context of the Motor Fuel Provision revealed that “motor fuel taxes” were limited to per-gallon taxes on distributors of motor fuel, and did not include sales and use taxes imposed on retail sales of motor fuels. View "Georgia Motor Trucking Assn. v. Georgia Dept. of Rev." on Justia Law

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This case involved challenges to the City of Atlanta’s attempted annexation of five areas. Shortly after the Governor approved HB 514 on April 26, 2016, Atlanta received petitions for annexation from five unincorporated areas of Fulton County contiguous to Atlanta. Emelyn Mays and five other individuals (collectively, “Mays”), who represented each of the proposed annexation areas as residents or property owners, filed a petition for declaratory judgment challenging the annexations. The trial court held an evidentiary hearing, and shortly thereafter issued an order granting Mays’s request declaring the annexations null and void on the ground that they were untimely under the terms of HB 514 and thus the Communities were part of South Fulton. In reaching this conclusion, the court expressly rejected Atlanta’s contention that HB 514 unconstitutionally conflicted with the general laws governing annexation by municipalities by preventing Atlanta’s annexation of the Communities as of July 1, 2016. Atlanta appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found the trial court correctly held that the annexations were invalid because at the time they would have become effective, the areas in question were already part of the newly incorporated City of South Fulton and thus ineligible for annexation by Atlanta. Accordingly, the Court affirmed. View "City of Atlanta v. Mays" on Justia Law