ATLANTA — When Victor Hill took office as sheriff while under indictment, Clayton County found itself in an unusual situation with tricky legal questions.
Hill was indicted while he was a private citizen in February 2012, but the charges stem from a previous term as sheriff. He took office Jan. 1, and the case has yet to go to trial.
The situation is unique – the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association has said it’s not aware of another instance of someone under indictment being elected or serving as sheriff in the state.
“It was bizarre from the start, and it continues to be bizarre,” said association president and Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills.
Sills and the association were among critics who urged the governor to look into suspending Hill, while the sheriff’s defense lawyers have said the charges against him are politically motivated.
Hill was indicted on 37 charges. The indictment accuses him of taking money from his failed re-election campaign in 2008, and using county resources for vacations. A judge in October dropped five racketeering charges against him. On Tuesday, a Georgia Court of Appeals decision rejected an attempt by the prosecution to have those charges reinstated, clearing the way for the case to go to trial.
Hill still faces 32 charges, including felonies, stemming from his first term as the county’s sheriff, from 2005 to 2008. Georgia law says no one convicted of a felony can serve as sheriff.
After the criminal trial, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council will complete its investigation into the allegations, according to the group’s executive director, Ken Vance. He said the council could decide on disciplinary action up to revocation of his peace officer certification.
State law says a sheriff must be certified as a peace officer within six months of taking office. Hill was certified before he became sheriff the first time, but that certification was suspended when he was indicted. It remains suspended pending the outcome of his criminal case.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Council will send a letter about Hill’s certification status to the county’s chief probate judge around July 1. It’s not clear what, if any, action the judge would take.
One of Hill’s lawyers, Drew Findling, said he doesn’t believe the suspended certification will affect Hill’s position, given that sheriffs aren’t on the streets making arrests or doing other things that require certification. And Sills, of the sheriffs’ association, is inclined to agree.
“I do think that Hill has a valid legal argument there,” Sills said. “He is certified. There’s no question he’s a certified peace officer. ... The fact that he is suspended will not make the office vacant.”
But Sills also said he believes that the allegations against Hill should have prompted Gov. Nathan Deal to look into suspending him. At its annual meeting in November, the board of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association decided to ask the governor to appoint a review panel to look into suspending Hill and recommended a suspension.
Deal in January said he would not appoint a panel. Deal concluded that the law governing the procedures for the suspension of public officials under indictment applies only to those indicted while in office, the governor’s office said at the time.
A Clayton County resident, James Buckman, filed a petition challenging that decision and trying to compel the governor to form a review commission, but a Fulton County Superior Court judge on Monday dismissed that case. Buckman’s lawyer has said he plans to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Another statute in Georgia law authorizes a governor to temporarily suspend a sheriff after an investigation if there are allegations of misconduct in office even without an indictment. But once the allegations lead to an indictment, that statute defers to the one Deal cited in his decision against a panel.
Page Pate, the lawyer who represented Buckman in his challenge to the governor’s refusal to form a review commission, argues that the statutes should be interpreted broadly and that lawmakers didn’t consider the possibility that voters would elect someone under indictment.
“I think if you’re looking at the intent of the Legislature, it would be to cover something like this,” Pate said. “If we keep construing these statutes narrowly, he’s going to dance right around them, and that seems to be what’s happening.”