Chatham County Sheriff Al St Lawrence is questioning the legitimacy of Savannah and Chatham County's police merger – and saying suspects have been arrested illegally for more than eight years.
The sheriff doesn't think the combined Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police Department has the right to patrol and make arrests in unincorporated Chatham County.
"That'd be a matter for the courts to address itself to, whether those arrests were legal or illegal," he said. "From my standpoint, I'd have to say they were illegal."
WTOC turned to Savannah Law Professor and former criminal defense attorney Elizabeth Megale for guidance. Megale said that even if St Lawrence is right, she doesn't think Chatham County will be seeing a flood of overturned convictions.
"When the police officer makes an arrest, as long as the police officer is acting in good faith, not doing anything malicious, and has a reasonable belief of his authority under the law, the case law tends to come out on the side of the officer and the state," she said. "I think it's pretty unlikely that we would invalidate all of the arrests made in the county during the last eight years."
While Megale doesn't think old convictions could be overturned -- if the courts decide the police merger wasn't done correctly under Georgia law, she thinks future arrests and convictions could be in jeopardy.
"Going forward, if this is declared an invalid merger, then there's an argument that the police are on notice and shouldn't be making these types of arrests," Megale said.
If courts were to declare the merger invalid, St Lawrence said the responsibility of policing unincorporated Chatham County would fall to him by default.
"If they said today, 'The contract is not legitimate. We're just going to do away with it,' by law it becomes my responsibility," he said.
But it's not a responsibility St Lawrence claims to be seeking.
Paragraph III. Supplementary powers. (a) In addition to and supplementary of all powers possessed by or conferred upon any county, municipality, or any combination thereof, any county, municipality, or any combination thereof may exercise the following powers and provide the following services: (1) Police and fire protection. (2) Garbage and solid waste collection and disposal. (3) Public health facilities and services, including hospitals, ambulance and emergency rescue services, and animal control. (4) Street and road construction and maintenance, including curbs, sidewalks, street lights, and devices to control the flow of traffic on streets and roads constructed by counties and municipalities or any combination thereof. 69 Article IX. Section II. Paragraph III. (5) Parks, recreational areas, programs, and facilities. (6) Storm water and sewage collection and disposal systems. (7) Development, storage, treatment, purification, and distribution of water. (8) Public housing. (9) Public transportation. (10) Libraries, archives, and arts and sciences programs and facilities. (11) Terminal and dock facilities and parking facilities. (12) Codes, including building, housing , plumbing, and electrical codes. (13) Air quality control. (14) The power to maintain and modify heretofore existing retirement or pension systems, including such systems heretofore created by general laws of local application by population classification, and to continue in effect or modify other benefits heretofore provided as a part of or in addition to such retirement or pension systems and the power to create and maintain retirement or pension systems for any elected or appointed public officers and employees whose compensation is paid in whole or in part from county or municipal funds and for the beneficiaries of such officers and employees. (b) Unless otherwise provided by law , (1) No county may exercise any of the powers listed in subparagraph (a) of this Paragraph or provide any service listed therein inside the boundaries of any municipality or any other county except by contract with the municipality or county affected; and (2) No municipality may exercise any of the powers listed in subparagraph (a) of this Paragraph or provide any service listed therein outside its own boundaries except by contract with the county or municipality affected. (c ) Nothing contained within this Paragraph shall operate to prohibit the General Assembly from enacting general laws relative to the subject matters listed in subparagraph (a) of this Paragraph or to prohibit the General Assembly by general law from regulating, restricting , or limiting the exercise of the powers listed therein ; but it may not withdraw any such powers. (d) Except as otherwise provided in subparagraph (b) of this Paragraph, the General Assembly shall act upon the subject matters listed in subparagraph (a) of this Paragraph only by general law .