He stood accused of violating Georgia’s zero-tolerance law for weapons on school campuses and faced two to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $10,000 if convicted.
But he was relieved to hear from his lawyer Tuesday that District Attorney Vic Reynolds has agreed on a deal that will result in the felony charge being dismissed.
Chitwood, 17, will be enrolled in Cobb County’s pretrial diversion program. He may have to do community service and submit to random drug tests, but that beats a ruinous felony conviction that would have haunted him the rest of his life.
He’s also back at school after serving a 10-day suspension.
“It’s good to be back,” he said.
And his plans to enter the Air Force are also back on track.
“My plans are to go in the Air Force, or go to KSU and go through their ROTC program,” he said. “But either way, my long-term goal is to be in the Air Force.”
Reynolds said he and Chitwood’s attorney, Joel Pugh, did not have any difficulty agreeing on a solution.
“His lawyer contacted me end of last week and asked me if I would consider placing him in our pretrial diversion program and if he completes that program, the case against him will be dismissed and expunged from his record. He will have a clean record,” Reynolds said. “I agreed, to make sure he would have nothing on his record where it would affect him in the future. He was concerned about that. I was concerned about that.”
The story, first reported by the Marietta Daily Journal, was picked up by other newspapers, radio and TV stations, including an online article over the weekend by Fox News commentator and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
“My client had no intent to do anything wrong. He’s a good kid. It was simply a mistake,” Pugh said. “He’s an avid fisherman and he forgot he had those knives in the car, and had absolutely no intent to harm anyone or break any school rules whatsoever.”
Pugh said his client has “just been embarrassed by this whole thing. His jail book-in photo has been on the local news, and national news, and he’s a 17-year-old kid.”
Working to rid Georgia of ‘zero tolerance’
Reynolds said he is working with state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) and others to change Georgia’s heavy-handed zero-tolerance law.
“In all candor these cases, it’s more of a policy call and the legislators are going to have to look real hard at that law and see if they want it to stay the way it is,” Reynolds said. “But I’m not a real fan of zero-tolerance laws.
“I’ve talked with Sen. Tippins and he’s asked me to help him come up with some language that would put common sense back into the law, and we’re in the process of doing that. We’re just trying to get a little horse sense back in the law.”
Chitwood is not the only local high school senior who has felt the sting of the zero-tolerance weapons law recently.
His arrest occurred about two weeks after that of Andrew Williams, 18, of Acworth. Williams is a senior at Allatoona High School, where he had his vehicle searched for marijuana by an assistant principal, who found no drugs, but did find a pocket knife in the center console. He promptly turned the teen over to campus police, who charged Williams on Sept. 6 with the same felony violation thrown at Chitwood.
Williams’ case has yet to make it to the D.A.’s office ,but now that Chitwood’s case has been placed on a track toward dismissal, it appears unlikely that Williams will be treated more harshly.
“I am going to make a decision very soon on that case,” Reynolds said.
Chitwood has no previous record of arrests or convictions, and his attorney was aggressive in seeking to get the case dismissed.
“Pugh came directly to me and we both agreed that this needs to be resolved quickly so this young man’s future will not be affected,” Reynolds said. “Having to raise two teenagers myself, it concerns me these kids can get jammed up on things because these laws don’t allow for any mitigating circumstances.”
Pugh said he has also been approached by several state legislators hoping to change the law.
“My take on this, to be brutally honest, is that these are well-intentioned laws. I have no doubt this law was passed in reaction to some tragedy that happened somewhere. I just don’t know if it was thoroughly thought out and if anyone realized it would have this type of consequences, because Cody Chitwood is just not the person this was designed to protect us from.
“At the end of the day, I could not be happier at how Vic (Reynolds) treated the case and how the police handled the case.”
From a cop’s perspective
A former cop himself, Reynolds said he knows from experience that most police officers don’t enjoy arresting young people on zero-tolerance infractions.
“What it does is it puts these campus police in a difficult position, and it ends up going up the chain of the system,” he said.
“When you take discretion away from experienced law enforcement officers and judges, that’s something that doesn’t need to happen, ever,” Pugh said. “I’ve known the officer involved in my client’s case for years and know he felt awful about this, but he had absolutely no discretion.”
Besides Tippins in the Senate, Reps. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) and Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) have also expressed interest in working with Reynolds to, as Setzler said, prevent “the death of common sense” in Georgia’s schools.
Reynolds said he will work with anyone in the General Assembly on this cause. He’s looked at other states’ laws with regard to weapons on school campuses and said Texas may offer some guidance.
“The state of Texas has some statutory language that we think will be a little more appropriate for our state,” he said. “Having been a former police officer myself you don’t check your common sense at the door when you get a badge and a gun; they want to be able to use theirs, but you can’t do it when you have a zero-tolerance law.”
Williams, meanwhile, said he has not been expelled from high school as administrators had previously recommended. He has been assigned to an alternative school and he plans to graduate on time next spring.
“I’m going to get my high school diploma and walk with my class and I should be good, I’m glad, and then I’ll go off and start college,” he said Tuesday.
Williams expressed happiness that Chitwood was being given a way out of the charges and hopes he will be granted the same favor by the D.A.’s office.
“Oh, that’s awesome,” he said.
He plans to apply for enrollment at Georgia Highlands College in Marietta after graduation.
“I’m pretty pumped,” he said.