The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has accused Biloxi Mississippi of illegally targeting the poor for arrest and jail without representation by legal counsel. Three plaintiffs in the suit had been arrested and jailed because a warrant had charged “them with failure to pay fines and court costs they could not afford to pay.”
“It’s essentially a jailhouse shakedown. Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they’re doing it off the backs of poor people,” said an attorney with the the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, Nusrat Choudhury, in a press release.
ACLU alleges that the city, its police chief, its judge and the profit-driven Judicial Corrections Services company were conspiring to routinely arrest and jail the poor in order to collect unpaid fines, fees and court fines in an “illegal revenue generation scheme”.
These fees were originally imposed for traffic and other misdemeanor cases, and in effect would be the court using the Judicial Corrections Services as a debt-collecting brute.
The company would create payment plans for people who had been fined without discussing the matter with them, and could use the legal power of the courts to issue warrants if the poor failed to make their payments.
The ACLU had filed its complaint with the federal district court in Gulfport Mississippi, asserting that Biloxi had violated the constitutional rights of its plaintiffs under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. The arrests were indicative of a persistent trend, a tactic that the city was using specifically to collect fines and reach its budget goals.
According to the ACLU, fines and forfeits at Biloxi had increased by 26 percent between 2008 and 2015; over the same period, the percentage of its population living below the poverty line has exploded from 13.3% to 27.5%… more than doubling. As people get poorer they end up paying more fines… making them poorer until they cannot afford to pay and get thrown in jail.
Worse, Biloxi was found to have even been projecting 1.45 million dollars of fines and fees in its 2015-2016 budget; it was depending on fines and fees to make its budget.
Plaintiff Qumotria Kennedy is a 36-year-old mother of two. She was earning an average of 750 dollars a month to support her kids. She was arrested at a traffic stop and jailed for 5 nights for unpaid traffic fines.
“Being jailed for not having money was devastating. I hope others don’t have to suffer or be mistreated this way simply because they are poor. It’s just not right,” said Kennedy in the ACLU release.
The disabled are not spared- plaintiff Joseph Anderson was arrested when an officer paid a visit to his house. He was punished… I mean jailed for 8 nights for a single unpaid speeding fine.
No house? No problem, law enforcement ssill managed to hunt down Plaintiff Richard Tillery, a homeless man. He was arrested and jailed for unpaid fines relating three different misdemeanor offences. Each would cost him 2 to 22 days of imprisonment.
“Being poor is not a crime. Yet across America, people are being locked up because they can’t afford to pay traffic fines and fees,” said Choudhury. “This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution.”
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel told Reuters that the city“treats all defendants fairly under the law,” and that its courts have ordered community service for people who could not pay their fines.
“We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi,”Creel added.
It should be noted that three decades ago the US Supreme Court had ruled that arresting people simply because they lack the income necessary to pay off court fines violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
Judges were not supposed to jail someone for failure to pay without FIRST considering their ability to pay or acquire the money. Alternatives to incarceration were also supposed to be considered.
The ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have investigated other towns that were trying to imprison the poor. A similar suit was filed by the ACLU in Washington State and its suit in Georgia had led to systemic reform.
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