I Was Taken From My Family and Jailed For 57 Days Because I Am Poor

“I don’t care if you have one, two, three, four, five, six, or seven kids.”

This is what the judge told me when I tried to explain that I was a single mom with seven kids. I could not afford to pay $100 a month toward traffic tickets. The judge threatened me with jail. I was scared.

This all started when I got two traffic tickets in March last year in Lexington County, South Carolina. I did something wrong. I drove without a tag light and on a suspended license. I wanted to go to court and make it right. But when I got there, the judge treated me like I was nothing. She sentenced me to pay more than $2400 for both tickets — more than the law allowed, my attorneys told me. I did not have the money to pay that day, so the judge decided that I had to pay $100 each month.

I knew I could not afford that. So, I explained that I could pay $50 each month. The judge wasn’t hearing it. She said, “I want my money on the twelfth.” She made clear that if I missed one payment, she would have a warrant out for my arrest.

I did everything I could to pay my traffic fines. I made five payments in a row. But then I started missing payments when I could not pay the court and support my family at the same time.

In the fall of 2016, one of my sons had to get jaw surgery. While I took care of him in the hospital for a week, I could not work. Also, my employer at the time was paying me with checks that kept bouncing, which meant I wasn’t getting paid when I should have been.

After looking for weeks, I finally found a better job. I planned to use my first pay check to get back on track to paying my fine. I was just waiting for that first check.

Then, on a Saturday morning in February, officers came to my home at around 7 a.m. My 13-year-old son came into my bedroom and told me, “The sheriff is out there.” I went to the front door and saw sheriff’s department deputies through the peephole.

I didn’t want to open the door. My kids were there. But I let the deputies in. An officer informed me that there was a warrant for my arrest. I got dressed and sent my 13-year-old to take the trash out. I didn’t want him to see me in handcuffs and taken to jail.

At the jail, officers gave me a copy of the warrant used to arrest me. It said that I needed to pay $1907.63 — the entire amount I still owed in traffic fines and fees — or serve 90 days in jail.

There was no way that I could pay. I did not want my children to go without food, electricity, and rent. And I had not yet gotten my first paycheck at my new job.

For 57 days, I was locked away in jail, away from my family. I cried every day. I prayed that my kids and grandkids would be okay. I could not be with my family when my cousin died. I could not be with them on my son’s 17th birthday or on my granddaughter’s first birthday. I lost my new job and the chance to get a promotion and a raise. I spent my 40th birthday in jail.

But even worse was the fear I had every day that my 13-year-old son would be taken away from me by the Department of Social Services. It made me feel sick to think that I could lose him while I was in jail because I could not afford to pay traffic fines.

Luckily my older children took on responsibility to make sure that the youngest was in good care. I am so grateful I did not lose him.

Since I was released on that 57th day in jail, I have been with my family. They are the light of my life. But I lost so much while I was in jail. I have been struggling to find a job, and I have even more bills because I couldn’t work in jail. It’s been hard.

I did everything I could to pay my fines, and I was still locked up because I was poor. I don’t think being poor should be a reason to be sent to jail, to be taken from your family. So I decided to bring a lawsuit against Lexington County and the people responsible so that no one else will be forced to spend weeks away from their family because they cannot afford to pay traffic tickets.

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Anonymous

Good for you. I understand that you were in the wrong for driving on a suspended license & had a broken light but there has to be another way. I also have to question why was your license suspended to begin with, perhaps you made a mistake? Were you a first time offender as far as loosing your license? I wish you the best in the future.

Fair Judges

While the magistrates words may seem callus, it is their job to only consider the facts of the case presented to them by prosecutors. If you break laws, get caught and can't pay the fines you become a debtor to the government (the people). The fact that she has 7 kids and is poor is not a defense to breaking laws and not paying fines.
The problem of poverty is not the courts problem, it is the problem of the people and their elected officials. If you don't like the law, then change it. The judge has the obligation to uphold the law as written. Otherwise the judge becomes an arbitrary decision maker. If we let this happen then judges will assert their personal opinion on matters instead of interpreting the law.

It is always sad when the poor are fined more than they can afford. Would it be fair if we had a system like Norway where fines are based on income? Is that constitutional? Or should all be treated exactly the same under the eyes of the law?

Kevin Fields

@Fair Judge: Judges have the ability to balance the word of the law against justice. Knowing that this woman was admitting that she broke the law, and was willing to pay restitution, but couldn't pay $100 a month, the judge ignored justice and instead forced this woman into an even more desperate situation. Driving on a suspended license may be against the law, but it isn't an act that harms society, either. Taking a mother away from her children and ignoring a family's plight IS an act that harms society.

Unbelievable

The number of children she is taking care of doesnt matter. Its astonishing that someone could even be fined $2400 for a nonworking tag light and driving on a suspended license. Even more ridiculous is jailing a person for the inability to pay the fine. Maybe there is more to this, but I used to live in SC and I was fined $250 for loitering even though it was obvious that I wasnt. So Im not surprised at this.

First the supreme court ruled that a persons inability to pay a fine is NOT a jailable offense. Now a person who can pay, but willfully doesnt can be jailed. The court must make an inquiry into a persons financial situation before the person jailed. Ya know, basic common sense...which is found anywhere else in this case.

So this woman drove a car with a suspended drivers license and a tag light that didnt work!! I'm so not caring about that!! It poses no danger to anyone and will never effect my life or anyone elses life.

She did violate the law though...and a reasonable fine is one way to punish a minor violation. A $2400 fine is not anywhere close to reasonable. In fact, this case lacks both logic and reason to a point where effort had to be put forth to make sure there wasnt any at all!

Everything the govt and the courts do impacts the lives of all of us. And mistakes will happen...but when it gets this ridiculous...its not a mistake...its being done on purpose and effects the lives of all us.

tragic but common

This story is tragic but not uncommon. First, the real reason you but in jail was for violating the law. Why was your license? Unpaid Traffic tickets? I feel for your situation but you and only you put yourself in this position. Why did you have 6 kids when you knew you couldn't afford even one? I'm not trying to beat you down but choices make a life.

I'm glad you love your kids. Love doesn't fill a breakfast bowl or buy clothing. Love doesn't pay the rent. Love didn't suspend your license. E40 said, "...ever body got choices..."

Start making the right ones and please STOP pumping out babies you can't afford! I can't afford them either and my taxes will end up bailing you out!

Anonymous

What a pathetic comment. You are a disgrace as a human being.

Ann Williams

Traffic offenses are not law, they are regulations and are civil and many people's licenses get suspended without their knowledge. I am one of those and the Supreme Court held long ago in Bearden vs. Georgia that people could not be jailed for failure to pay a traffic fine and your taxes are not involved here. Educate yourself before giving others advice.

Vincent

I'm curious to how you think the taxes that come out of your paycheck goes towards bailing people out of jail. "Pumping out babies", I wonder what your education level is, let alone your level of maturity.

Rich Woman

While the magistrates words may seem callus, it is their job to only consider the facts of the case presented to them by prosecutors. If you break laws, get caught and can't pay the fines you become a debtor to the government (the people). The fact that she has 7 kids and is poor is not a defense to breaking laws and not paying fines.
The problem of poverty is not the courts problem, it is the problem of the people and their elected officials. If you don't like the law, then change it. The judge has the obligation to uphold the law as written. Otherwise the judge becomes an arbitrary decision maker. If we let this happen then judges will assert their personal opinion on matters instead of interpreting the law.

It is always sad when the poor are fined more than they can afford. Would it be fair if we had a system like Norway where fines are based on income? Is that constitutional? Or should all be treated exactly the same under the eyes of the law?

Anonymous

7 kids is why you are poor. Stop being a baby maker! We cant afford your kids either.

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