The critical duties of the district attorney
Governor Nathan Deal will soon appoint the new District Attorney (DA) of the Coweta Judicial Circuit from a list of honorable attorneys wanting to serve our community. The Circuit, which consists of Carroll, Coweta, Troup, Heard, and Meriwether counties, will not be the only area affected by the appointment. Surrounding counties, like Douglas, Paulding, and Haralson, will be impacted by Deal’s decision as well.
But, why should anyone care about who serves as DA or what he or she does?
We should all care because the duties of the DA are very broad, impact every person living in west Georgia, and allow him or her to wield great power.
The DA is the chief prosecuting officer for the State of Georgia within each of the State’s 49 judicial circuits. Each DA is constitutional officer, who is part of the judicial branch of the Georgia state government.
Here are the most important and impactful aspects of the position:
Generally, the DA represents the state in the trial of felony (and sometimes misdemeanor) criminal cases in the Superior Court. In some circuits, the DA’s office will prosecute delinquency cases, which are quasi-criminal, in the juvenile courts. The DA also represents the state in the Georgia Supreme Court and Georgia Court of Appeals in appeals of criminal convictions arising out of their jurisdiction, which includes researching and drafting briefs and presenting oral arguments. Additionally, the DA must practice civil law by pursuing, when appropriate, civil actions in RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), drug and gambling cases.
Each DA’s office in each county in a circuit has a staff of assistant district attorneys, investigators, victim advocates, and administrative personnel who assist the DA in carrying out the duties of the office. The DA must be an effective manager and leader to properly organize this team — particularly in multi-county circuits.
The DA will be more effective if he or she has good relationships with county commissioners, mayors, city council members and legislators because of budgeting, the shaping of public policy and other matters.
The DA must also have an excellent working relationship with the law enforcement agencies throughout the district because of the duty to advise officers regarding the sufficiency of evidence, search warrants and many other aspects to the investigation and prosecution of people he or she believes have committed criminal offenses.
The DA’s office handles probable cause hearings (hearings to determine whether probable cause exists for the alleged offenses a jailed defendant may have committed), represents the state at bond hearings in both superior and magistrate court, operates pretrial diversion programs, and provides services in accountability courts like drug courts, mental health courts and veterans courts.
The Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights mandates that the DA and victim advocates identify people they believe are victims and provide assistance to them and their families. Assistance may include notification of prosecutorial and court action, counseling, referral to social service agencies and going to court with them. While mandated, it is also the right thing to do.
Finally, and most importantly, the DA’s overriding responsibility is to “seek justice.” In doing so, he or she is still involved in prosecution. But, prosecution actually involves that exercise of wide and powerful discretion in determining whether to pursue a case at all and, if so, whom and how to prosecute. Prosecution does not always equate to “putting people in jail.” Prosecution can be defined as ensuring that those persons who are not responsible are not held responsible and that those persons who are responsible are held responsible and held responsible in an appropriate way.
As you can see, the DA has enormous power and responsibility. That power can be abused or used to positively impact hundreds of thousands of people.
A local superior court judge once told me that “leniency or probation is for people we are angry or disappointed with. Jail and prison is for people who endanger our free society.”
As a citizen, that short and broad statement makes sense and describes the general philosophy of an effective and just DA.
Jason W. Swindle Sr. is a Senior Partner and Criminal Defense Attorney at Swindle Law Group in Carrollton.