Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia, Judge Rooney Bowen III Judge Rooney Bowen III, Council of Probate Court Judges of Georgia (Courtesy photo)

Judges from around the state gathered this week at a Georgia State Patrol station near the Capitol for training in handling traffic cases.

They may not be the kind of judges most people think of as heading traffic court. The 20 who took three days of classes on the law governing field sobriety tests and other types of evidence were not state court traffic judges. They are probate judges.

All 159 of Georgia’s counties have probate court judges—who handle wills and estates, vital records, marriage licenses, gun permits and guardianships. Many of them—88 at the moment—also preside over traffic court, according to Probate Judge Rooney Bowen III of Dooly County Probate Court.

Bowen, the current president of the Georgia Council of Probate Judges, has made it his goal to offer traffic court training and certification to all those 88 judges. This week’s session is one in a series the council is offering. It’s the first such class of its kind, and Bowen said it will be mandatory by June of 2018.

“We’re groundbreaking. We’re trying to be proactive. We’re trying to make our judges the best they can be,” Bowen said Thursday. “The more training the better.”

Probate Judge Danielle McRae of Upson County, chair of the council’s committee for the traffic training certificate program, said Thursday that many of the judges in the training session preside over traffic court in small towns and rural communities like hers.

Traffic in general and traffic citations in particular have grown noticeably in the six years she has been in office, McRae said. The range of cases she hears starts with seat belt violations and continues in seriousness up through speeding and DUI.

The law that governs such cases can be as complex as other areas. Yet many of those probate judges are nonlawyers, according to Kevin Holder, the council’s executive director. Of the 159 probate judges, only 41 currently are lawyers, Holder said.

The type of field sobriety training going on at the Capitol state patrol office this week was the subject of a recent controversial Georgia Supreme Court decision. Justice Nels Peterson wrote a unanimous opinion released Oct. 16, ruling that refusal to take a breath test for alcohol could not be used against a defendant in a DUI case. Although Peterson did not overturn the conviction at hand, the opinion started lawyers and drunk driving prevention advocates talking about its implications for the future and the need for understanding of it.

“The Georgia Constitution protects each of us from being forced to incriminate ourself,” Peterson wrote. “Unlike the similar right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, this state constitutional protection applies to more than mere testimony; it also protects us from being forced to perform acts that generate incriminating evidence. This case calls this Court to decide whether this state constitutional protection prohibits law enforcement from compelling a person suspected of DUI to blow their deep lung air into a breathalyzer. A nearly unbroken line of precedent dating back to 1879 leads us to conclude that it does, although the appellant here still loses because the language of the implied consent notice statute he challenges is not per se coercive.”

In a decision last week, the Georgia Court of Appeals tossed out evidence of drug possession because the police officer lacked a reasonable cause for making the traffic stop. In that opinion, Chief Judge Stephen Dillard overruled Lumpkin County Superior Court Judge N. Stanley Gunter’s denial of a motion to suppress evidence.

If a traffic case is heard by a probate judge—lawyer or not—the chief superior court judge in the county is the first line of appeal, according to Bowen. He said superior court judges and other lawyers have stepped up to assist with the new traffic certification program.

Said Bowen, “Any time we can advance the training of a judge, we feel everyone is better served.”