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Bulloch Local Government

INSIDER: Bulloch County Solicitor General Candidate Mark Lanier

Candidate Insider: Bulloch County Solicitor General candidate Mark Lanier

Due to the social distancing guidelines, we have converted our traditional AllOnGeorgia candidate video interviews into short questionnaires. Each candidate in the race was provided an identical questionnaire with the same deadline. Answers were not edited in any way.

The Primary Election was moved to June 9th.
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  1. What experience do you have as a prosecutor and attorney?

     

    As a prosecutor, I am the Acting Solicitor-General of Bulloch County and have been since the appointment and swearing in of The Honorable Joseph L. Cushner as State Court Judge of Bulloch County.   Mr. Cushner was the previous Solicitor-General and I was the Assistant Solicitor-General; I served under Mr. Cushner for a little more than three years. My job is to prosecute those misdemeanor and traffic offenses that occur within Bulloch County and I’ve done this in Bulloch County State Court since taking the oath of office on January 17, 2017.  My office prosecutes approximately 2,000 misdemeanor and 3,500 traffic offenses each year. These offenses can vary widely from Battery Family Violence, DUI, Obstruction, Hit & Run, and Shoplifting to something as simple as a seatbelt or handsfree device citation. There is such a wide array of offenses due to the Georgia Code’s designation of multiple crimes punishable as a misdemeanor.  I am currently the only prosecutor in our Solicitor’s Office and am assisted by a Victim Advocate and a Legal Secretary; both work very hard and do a great job.  

    As an attorney, I was sworn into the Georgia Bar on June 15, 2012 and began working for Matthew L. Waters.  Mr. Waters operated a general practice law firm in Wrightsville and Pembroke, Georgia. I worked for Mr. Waters for approximately two years and handled Debt Collection, Criminal Defense, Domestic Relations, Transactional work (real estate, etc.), and Probate matters.  Afterwards, I was a sole practitioner in Bulloch County and the surrounding area for approximately one year while representing clients on probate and domestic relations matters. Additionally, I worked for Stafford Law Group, LLC here in Statesboro and represented clients in domestic relations cases.  In January of 2015, I began as an Assistant Public Defender in the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit and represented indigent defendants charged with crimes in the State and Superior Courts of Bulloch, Effingham, Jenkins, and Screven County. I was an Assistant Public Defender for approximately two years before moving to the Solicitor’s Office.  I am incredibly thankful for each opportunity provided me. Since being licensed to practice law in Georgia, I have gained extensive experience in the prosecution and defense of cases in State Court and had a part in either the prosecution of, or the defense of, thousands of cases over this time.  My title or role may have changed but the burden of proof and operation of law did not.

  2. How do you view the day-to-day role of the Solicitor-General? (The balance between managing the office and being in the courtroom, duties and responsibilities, etc.)

     

    The general duties of a Solicitor-General are provided in O.C.G.A. 15-18-66.  The only way I know to address this question is to provide a general summary of what is currently done to comply with this code section. 

    My office practice involves obtaining charging documents (citations or warrants), drafting accusations, obtaining and reviewing discovery materials, making recommendations to defense counsel, participation in motion hearings, Jury and Bench Trials, probation revocation hearings, arraignments, and other regular court attendance required for the prosecution of misdemeanor and traffic offenses in the State Court of Bulloch County.  I also communicate with law enforcement regarding pending cases, changes to the law, and answer questions they may have about the application of proper charges. The financial aspect is being aware of the various cost(s) encountered in carrying out these tasks and general office expenses in consideration of our budget. Additionally, we have a duty to victims and notifications are sent out regarding court date(s) of a defendant, documents requesting additional information or restitution values, and information on the status of a case and any resolution thereof.  We also notify victims of certain services within the community that may be able to provide help or offer what we cannot. 

    On an average day, I respond to telephone calls and emails from law enforcement, victims, probation officers, the Clerk’s Office, opposing counsel, and Pro Se Defendants.  Before Covid-19, I always tried to speak with people in person but now we all must abide by certain necessary precautions. In preparation for court, I review files and discovery, subpoena necessary witnesses, research legal issues and communicate with defense counsel in furtherance of resolving cases.  Part of my regular tasks also include keeping up with current community events, timely responding to FBI NICS requests, attending county meetings, and maintaining continuing legal education hours. I also communicate daily with the Clerk’s Office regarding traffic citations and Bulloch County Probation on the status of current Probationers.   Additionally, a weekly Jail Court session is held on Thursday afternoon and many of the above tasks must be completed before this. I also communicate with the District Attorney’s Office regarding cases that are transferred to or from their office. 

    Our office is busy considering our yearly caseload is in excess of 5,000 cases and we currently have a total of three employees.  Being able to efficiently and effectively manage this caseload while running the office is paramount. Fortunately, I’ve had the experience of working here for a few years and had the opportunity to witness Mr. Cushner manage these tasks.  Being part of how he previously handled these matters has no doubt had a positive impact on my ability to address them today. 

  3. What practices are in place from the outgoing administration that you think should be carried over by the new administration?

     

    The previous Solicitor-General, Mr. Joseph Cushner, did the job well.  He and I regularly discussed what practices could be modified or put in place to better accomplish our duty to public service.  The Court, the Public Defender’s Office, Private Counsel, and others were involved in these discussions. We all have a role in the court system. 

    Over the previous years, Mr. Cushner transitioned files to electronic storage to save office space, provide greater organization, and make it easier to share discovery materials.  I intend to continue this and would like to further utilize secure technology when able. 

    Additionally, Mr. Cushner changed the way pre-trial conferences were conducted.  This is when we resolve most cases. This change likely saved taxpayer’s money and allowed law enforcement to be on patrol or otherwise working while court is held; law enforcement now come to court only when there is a possibility their presence is required for testimony.  We provide defense counsel with all available discovery and a plea recommendation prior to this date so they may advise their client(s) how to best proceed. In the case of a Pro Se Defendant (one that represents themselves), discovery is available, and a recommendation is in the file to review with them if they choose to discuss their case with us. 

    Mr. Cushner interviewed and appointed an Assistant Solicitor.  I believe this should be carried over as well. Our caseload is significant, the safety of the general public necessitates there be enough prosecutors to handle it.  There were also times when one of us was sick, in training, or needed to care for a family member and having another attorney in the office was necessary. 

    In 2019, a decision was made to hold Jury Selection and Jury Trials more often. Obviously, we could not anticipate Covid-19 and the impact it would have on Court.  Misdemeanor and traffic offenses would ideally be heard by the court or jury within a relatively short period of time.  When able and safe to proceed, I believe it would be beneficial for the public, defendants, and my office to continue with this new schedule. 

    This list is not exhaustive.  I will continue to review those practices in place before me and will request input from others on how to better do the job.  I think it is important to periodically review things to make sure there isn’t a better way; just because something was always done a certain way doesn’t mean that is the best way to do it now.

  4. How can the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office be more efficient and what does it mean for an office like that of the Solicitor to be ‘efficient’?

     

    All the previous Bulloch County Solicitor’s I’ve spoken with about this topic agree the timely prosecution of cases is important.  I completely agree with this due to the nature of misdemeanor and traffic offenses.  That’s not the same as saying we’ve all been able to fully accomplish it though. We’ve all tried, and I will continue to.  I would like to improve upon the speed that cases go from arrest to conclusion. This may take the form of having more frequent jury selections as mentioned above or setting aside a day of court solely for traffic citation cases.  I’ve discussed this with attorneys, other prosecutors around the State, the Court, co-workers, and others that regularly participate in State Court functions in effort to come up with ideas. 

    Our office does not issue citations or warrants; we prosecute those citations and warrants that are issued and filed in State Court.  We then request discovery, create a file, transmit available discovery to defense counsel, and proceed with the case. Several steps occur before a case is closed by plea, verdict, or dismissal; each one of these steps is evaluated for efficiency. 

    In our current situation, we are (for good reason) under an Executive Order and a Judicial Emergency is declared.  We have weekly Jail Court for inmates held in the county jail but cannot safely proceed with court as usual in the courthouse.  Our office has taken this downtime as an opportunity to prepare files, send out discovery, and prepare for future court dates. During this time, I’ve been reviewing as many open cases that I can so that State Court will be able to hit the ground running when we reopen.

  5. Bulloch County has more than 400 DUI arrests across jurisdictions each year, but only a handful of those result in convictions due to plea agreements, amendments to lesser charges, and dismissed charges.  Should the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office (choose one):

    _X_do more to seek convictions in DUI cases
    ___do less to seek convictions in DUI cases
    ___continue ‘as is’ in DUI cases 

    Please explain your answer.

    It goes without saying that impaired drivers pose a significant public safety risk and convictions should be sought in driving under the influence (DUI) cases.   

    A previous Lexis search of O.C.G.A 40-6-391 (the DUI code section) resulted in 91 pages of statute and case law specifically on the issue of DUI law.  These cases vary in subject from when an arrest was made, in what time frame the driver operated the vehicle, the type of intoxicant causing impairment, when, how, and in what language Implied Consent was read, and etc.  In other words, DUI law is very heavily litigated and subject to frequent change.  I can think of no other misdemeanor offense that recommends a law enforcement officer conduct roadside tests for involuntarily eye movement or a person’s ability to perform divided attention test(s).  Not only is DUI law complex, it also carries minimum statutory penalties that require a certain amount of jail time, a minimum fine, a specific number of community service hours (or days), completion of a Risk Reduction Course, and Drug/Alcohol Evaluation.  Additionally, these penalties change with each offense if they occur within a period of five or ten years and increase in severity or type. There are other administrative actions that can impact a driver’s license that are handled in a different Court. Even this is not a complete list. 

    I state all of the above to say that, like any other offense, some DUI offenses have more evidence than others.  The evidence in the case of a person that stumbles out of their car and falls down on HD video is ideal; but that seldom happens. The State has the burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and to do this we need admissible evidence for the Court or Jury to consider.  If a DUI is resolved by an alternative or Non-DUI charge, the reason(s) for this alternative charge are always stated on the record or made in writing to be part of the record. Recording this is something that I do and plan to continue. This is something the previous Solicitor-General did and it’s something The Honorable Judge Gary Mikell (Ret.) did.

  6. What can the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office do to adequately equip officers with the necessary tools to build solid DUI cases from arrest to prosecution?

     

    Training and physical tools are provided by individual departments and their respective agencies.  Additionally, the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council and other entities hold regular training seminars that are frequently attended by law enforcement and prosecutors.  I attend these and so do several officers. I will continue to communicate with individual law enforcement officers as I have in the past and address any issue that arises.  Law enforcement officers have my cell and work number and I routinely communicate with them about cases or changes to the law. Additionally, any guidance or information I receive is transmitted to them and they do the same for me.

  7. A number of prosecutors around the state have opted not to prosecute misdemeanor marijuana offenses due to concerns over field testing and the evolving public opinion on marijuana generally. What is your position on this?

    Current Georgia law provides that possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is punishable as a misdemeanor offense.  Being the Acting Solicitor-General, my job is to prosecute misdemeanor offenses. Thus, I prosecute it and plan to continue so long as that is the law.  In other words, I have a job to do and am going to do it. If the law changes, so will I.  

    That being said, not every possession of marijuana case is the same:  Some have a small amount, some have a lot, some lie about having it and run from law enforcement, some voluntarily hand it over and cooperate, for some it is their first and only offense, and for some it is the fifth time.  

    These circumstances should be taken into consideration.  If it is a first offense, and if the Court permits, I recommend any sentence be under Conditional Discharge (O.C.G.A. 16-13-2a).  This is a legal mechanism for a first-time drug offense to be essentially discharged and not treated as a conviction upon successful completion of the sentence terms.  Some type of drug or alcohol evaluation is standard in most State Court sentences and for subsequent or more serious offenses, I recommend a more thorough or “clinical” drug or alcohol evaluation.  The punishment should fit the crime and the circumstances surrounding it; I want to take the circumstances surrounding the arrest into consideration in the courtroom and have begun to modify my recommendations based on the above.  

  8. Does the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office adequately assist defendants who may be in need of a public defender? If not, what could be done to improve this necessity?

    Yes, is the short answer.  I often speak with the local Public Defender’s Office about this very issue.  A Defendant charged with a crime is entitled to representation by an attorney and a Public Defender represents defendants that qualify for their services.  Their office is a separate entity from the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office. 

    As to the long answer, I will tell you what is currently done.  Bulloch County contracts with the Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Office of the Public Defender to represent indigent criminal defendants in the State Court of Bulloch County.  The local Public Defender’s Office is made up of licensed attorneys and support staff. They are criminal defense attorneys that represent clients in cases just as a private attorney would.  In order to qualify for representation, one must complete an application. Qualification is based upon having income below a certain level and they routinely send investigators out to obtain this application information. 

    Additionally, those charged with a misdemeanor in the State Court of Bulloch County are given another opportunity to obtain the services of a Public Defender.  Before each Arraignment, the sitting Judge will make an announcement directing attention to the podium. At this time, a Spanish Language translator makes an announcement in Spanish in event anyone requests or requires her services.  Afterwards, the audience is informed of important information regarding the Court and their rights; part of this is Public Defender representation. Those that wish to apply for their services go and meet with a Public Defender at that time.  After they exit, those remaining are called up regarding their case. During this time, if there is any desire for representation, I remind them of the availability of the Public Defender for criminal misdemeanor cases and request a Bailiff show them where they may meet.  Also, some desire to hire a private attorney and we indicate that on the paperwork. If the Public Defender’s Office has a conflict of interest in a particular case, the Court is notified and another licensed attorney is appointed for representation. Probationers are also notified of the availability to seek representation by a Public Defender before a probation revocation hearing and Public Defenders also consult and represent inmates for the weekly Jail Court.  Moreover, I routinely provide their office telephone number to people that call.  

  9. How should the Bulloch County Solicitor’s Office measure success?

    Due to the nature of some misdemeanor and traffic offenses, it is difficult to measure success in terms of a conviction rate.  Conviction rates are important and though the overwhelming majority of cases that come through my office result in a conviction, I can’t honestly say that a conviction will solve the underlying issue for the public or the victim.  For example, meeting the burden of proof and obtaining a conviction for the offenses of Public Intoxication and Affray (fighting), doesn’t mean that person has stopped drinking and fighting. The sentence could include jail time or significant alcohol counselling and anger management; there remains no guarantee they will stop drinking and fighting.  It will work for some, but not all. I use alcohol as an example because it appears to be a contributing factor in many of the cases I’ve prosecuted. The vast majority of people obey the law. Those that are charged and come through Bulloch County State Court will typically see the inside of a courtroom only once in their lifetime. Those that do return, seem to return often.  This appears to be the issue in courts around the nation and there is considerable debate on how to have a “success” in these cases. 

    I try to measure success by doing the best I can on each case.  Sticking with the scenario above, the best resolution may be jail time depending on the severity of the offense, history, and injuries.  Or it could be a fine, community service, a provision requiring him/her to stay away from the other party, and a good alcohol evaluation with compliance as part of the probated sentence. The point I’m getting to is the facts and circumstance of each case and each defendant need to be considered as well as the State’s ability to meet the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

  10. Is there anything else you would like the public to know about you? (This area may also be used to include a bio and offer information on where people can learn more about you?)

    I’m from Bulloch County; I was born here and my family lives here.  The people of Bulloch County have provided a lot for us over the years and I am very appreciative of this and look forward to continuing to serve Bulloch County as their Solicitor-General.  I’ve prosecuted cases in our Solicitor’s Office since January 2017, am still prosecuting cases here today, and look forward to continuing to do so. I have the necessary, hands-on experience to continue working in the Solicitor’s Office. 

    My work background helps me look at cases from other perspectives.  My previous work in criminal defense helps me see the weaknesses in a case and helps me predict what defenses may be raised.  My work in domestic relations helps me understand what may be going on the background of family violence cases. Additionally, my experience in civil law helps me appreciate the victim of an automobile accident will not be made whole simply with the payment of a traffic citation.   

    I also want the Public to know that our office remains open and we continue to work; people don’t stop breaking the law just because there is a virus.  I come into the office every work day and review files so that we will be able to proceed with cases as quickly as we can when Court can safely reopen.

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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