“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.