GA Court Of Appeals Establishes “Mullet Doctrine”

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Our judiciary remains one of the least understood branches of government in our republic. For those of us that are non-lawyers it is difficult to follow the politics of a system where some members are appointed, some are elected, and most of their work product is hard to understand. Then, in weeks such as this one when a new Supreme Court Justice is announced, we all stare in amazement at this co-equal branch, before quickly turning our thoughts to the Senate and thus political arguments over confirmation which are easier for us to understand.

In Georgia, our court system like most political structures begin with local courts, then moves up to the Georgia Court of Appeals, and then the Supreme Court of Georgia. The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals is Justice Stephen Dillard, who last week declined a potential nomination to the Supreme Court of Georgia, citing his current duties and already five new Justices on the Court of Appeals in less than a year. His commitment to stability of the court over personal ambition is unusual and refreshing.

Rather than continuing a lengthy column explaining how the court works and likely providing a cure for insomnia, I’d rather focus on one case that shows that the system is actually filled with normal people who actually relate to the citizens they serve more than most of us would assume. One can find additional evidence of this in Chief Judge Dillard’s twitter account, or in Supreme Court Justice Nel’s Peterson’s decisions which have been praised for their direct and easy to understand language eschewing legalese.

A friend of mine from South Metro Atlanta, Holly Peace, recently passed the bar exam after years of working as a paralegal for another friend, Cindy Manning. They are now the law firm of Manning & Peace. Cindy recently congratulated Holly via Facebook on winning her first appeal before the Georgia Court of Appeals. I was equally happy to see her accomplishment, but it was the words “mullet doctrine” that drew my curiosity.

Holly’s client had been convicted of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana after Peachtree City police entered a backyard party without first going to the door of the home and knocking or requesting permission to enter. Holly argued that the evidence shouldn’t be allowed as the police didn’t have a warrant to enter or search the backyard. The trial judge disagreed, and her client was found guilty.

The appeal centered on whether police can walk into a backyard party where there is an obvious gathering of people or if they first must go through the formality of knocking on the door of a house, presumably knowing the person they wish to talk to are not inside. The three judge panel of Justices Charlie Bethel, John Ellington, and Elizabeth Gobeil split 2-1, with Bethel writing the dissent.

Bethel argued that there is no reason to first go to the door of an empty house when the people the police wish to talk to are clearly in the back yard. Or, to quote him directly, “I see no Constitutional or logical reason to require officers to conduct futile business in the front, when the party is clearly in the back.”

Judge Gobeil, writing for the majority, noted that the police had not observed any illegal activity prior to entering the yard, nor was there a sign directing partygoers to enter the backyard directly. The police instead ordered all party goers to “stay there” as they entered, without having established probable cause that a crime had been committed.

As such, she wrote, “Under these facts, the dissent’s ‘mullet doctrine’ does not get the officers into the party out back.” The judgement was reversed, and the Court of Appeals newest Judge has forever enshrined the “Mullet Doctrine” into Georgia’s legal lexicon.

As we spend the next couple of months arguing over the confirmation of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, let’s not get lost in the fact that we have a vast court system that is made up of individuals from each of our home communities. Let’s also take a moment to be thankful that even when exercising official duties, some of those here in Georgia can express humor, even when formally disagreeing with each other.

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