A North Georgia homeless man may go to prison for 18 months because he cannot come up with $250 to take a court-ordered polygraph test.
Such a move would seem to violate a U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring it unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a fee or fine. But the man’s attorney, McCracken Poston, said the state Department Community of Supervision is nonetheless pushing for the punishment.
“It’s crazy,” Poston told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying his client, Robert Murphy, has been unable to find a job since he was convicted of a sex offense and had recently been living under a bridge that spans the South Chickamauga Creek.
Advocates said that despite the high court ruling – which stemmed from a case out of Catoosa County more than three decades ago – poor people are still being jailed for failing to pay court-ordered fees.
“Debtors’ prisons are alive and well in Georgia,” Sara Totonchi, executive director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, said, adding that her group has represented many people like Murphy.
“You can’t put somebody in jail for their inability to pay. Period,” said Augusta attorney Jack Long, who has brought several lawsuits against private probation companies that pushed for arrests when probationers could not pay court-ordered fines or fees. “You cannot legally impose a condition on a poor person that has the effect of locking them up because they are poor.”
Murphy’s latest trouble began after a probation officer making a routine check of his second-hand laptop, found a photo of a boy standing with his grandmother. As a convicted sex offender, any photograph of a child — even an innocent picture — could violate the terms of his probation.
Murphy said the photograph was left on the computer by the man who sold it to him and denied using it to search for pornography. He was ordered to take a polygraph to determine if he was telling the truth about the picture and his internet use. (The probation revocation warrant that was issued when he didn’t take the polygraph also lists one other
Poston said Murphy can’t afford it.
His failure to take it has prompted the state Department of Community Supervision to ask a court to revoke some of the remaining 7 1/2 years of his probation sentence.
Murphy is scheduled to be in court at the end of November, almost three months after he was picked up and taken to the Catoosa County Jail, where he waits. A spokesman for DCS said he could not speak about Murphy’s case specifically but, in general, the agency provides probationers with a the names of local polygraphers who will test probationers at no cost. In Ringgold, there are three, the spokesman said.
But Murphy said none agreed to do it free of charge.
“They just gave me names, and I called up the names and got the prices. Nobody I know does (it) pro bono,” Murphy said. “He (the probation officer) knows I’m living under a bridge. He said, ‘you’re going to have to come up with the money.’”