ATLANTA — A suburban Atlanta prosecutor has asked a judge to dismiss a case against a young woman from Mexico whose 2010 arrest after a traffic offense nearly led to her deportation, sparking a wider immigration debate. But the judge in the case has previously denied a similar request, and defense lawyers suspect politics might be at play.
District Attorney Pat Head filed a strongly worded motion Tuesday asking Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley to grant a recent defense request to dismiss the case. In the filing, Head appears to make a personal jab at Staley, comparing the charges against Jessica Colotl, to a case involving the judge’s sister.
“She is too intelligent a woman to actually harbor any kind of anti-immigrant sentiment,” defense attorney Jerome Lee said of the elected judge. “So I can only imagine that there is some political aspiration here that’s motivating this.”
Staley did not return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
Colotl, whose parents brought her to the U.S. illegally from Mexico when she was 11, was thrust into the national spotlight after she was stopped for a minor traffic violation in March 2010 and then arrested for driving without a license.
In February 2011, Colotl was indicted on a charge of false swearing after the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office said she gave deputies false contact information during booking for her arrest. She entered into an agreement with the Cobb County district attorney’s office in August 2011 to enter a pretrial diversion program, a solution Staley signed off on.
After a media report quoted Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren as calling the deal a “slap on the wrist” and something he hadn’t agreed to, Staley called a new hearing on Colotl’s eligibility for the program. In October 2011, she reopened the case and instructed the district attorney to talk with the sheriff and consider his opinion.
Since then, Colotl’s case has appeared on the court’s docket every two weeks, meaning she and a lawyer have had to appear in court repeatedly for a case that is never called, Lee said.
Head complied with the judge’s order and talked to Warren, but determined Colotl was indeed eligible for the program, Head writes in a motion filed Tuesday requesting that Staley grant Colotl’s lawyer’s request last week to dismiss the case.
Warren didn’t return messages seeking comment Wednesday.
Colotl has since fulfilled all of her obligations under the pretrial diversion program. She performed 150 hours of community service, and Head has filed documents advising the court he has no intention of prosecuting the case further.
Staley last month issued an order denying Head’s filing. The judge said she refused to follow his recommendation not to pursue the case because the sheriff’s office has “raised legitimate concerns that have not been adequately addressed.” Staley also cited a misdemeanor conviction against Colotl, saying that has “consistently disqualified entry” into the county’s pretrial diversion program.
Head’s motion notes that Georgia law governing pretrial diversion programs “shall be at the discretion of the prosecuting attorney.” He writes that his office has seen no correspondence between the sheriff and the judge regarding Warren’s concerns.
Head also points out that the guidelines for the pretrial diversion program clearly allow the district attorney to make exceptions. Colotl’s acceptance into the program is not unusual for a person with no history of violence or aggression and a single misdemeanor conviction of driving without a license, and nothing about the pending charge of false swearing disqualifies her either, he wrote.
“Individuals charged with False Statement and even Forgery in the First Degree have been successfully admitted into the Pretrial Diversion Program,” Head wrote. He cited a 2007 case that the Marietta Daily Journal says involves Staley’s sister.
After Colotl’s traffic stop in 2010, she was handed over by the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office to federal immigration authorities and spent more than a month in a detention center in Alabama. Immigration authorities eventually released her, saying they would give her a year to finish her studies at Kennesaw State University.
She has since graduated and been granted extensions of that deferred action on her case and is in the process of applying for an Obama administration program that allows certain illegal immigrant young people to avoid deportation for two years and apply for a work permit.
Colotl’s immigration attorney Charles Kuck said the pending case in Cobb County shouldn’t affect her immigration case.