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

Thank you for sharing your story! Interesting that the other commenters are happy question your choices but not the state's questionable decisions to impose too high of a monthly payment or expecting that time spent in a taxpayer financed jail cell will somehow make everything better.

Ann Williams

Local detention centers and jails are not financed by the taxpayers, rather the offenders which is why the fines are so high.

CB

I guarantee keeping this woman in jail for 57 days cost much, MUCH more than these ridiculous, mostly made-up late penalty fees cost. How stupid on the part of Lexington County! Why no option for any community service, either? Well, when they lose this lawsuit hopefully that judge will be out of job.

Ann Williams

Nothing will happen to the judge. She's a Magistrate, not a judge and can only be removed for specific reasons.

Ann Williams

This is interesting given I contacted the ACLU three years ago for the exact same reason that happened in the exact same county, but twice. They told me in writing that they did not handle these types of cases and could not help me. I want an explanation for that. Some people have a remedy, while others don't?

Anonymous

Why do almost all commentors have to be trolls?

They're either trolling the author or trolling the other commentors.

Words of wisdom from my Granny:
"If you ain't got nothin kind to say y'aught to not. "

Anonymous

This is why your granny is dead.

Karen

This is in reguard to the idiots who are cold and without compassion for the human race. Get a life you inconsiderate heartless people. Its ones like you that make the world the way it is. Look I dont care who you are , the so called justice system in the U.S. is nothing but a corrupt den of vile snakes! Its all about the money and they dont care who gets hurt in the long run! To all of you who pretend that you have never broken the law YOU'RE LIARS! Something as small as a tag light is not worthy of loosing a job and possibly a child as well as being locked up in a nasty smelly jail cell. All for what? Being to poor to pay the money the Corrupt Gov. Expects you to pay for a fine given over a missing tag light. What starts out as a relatively small fine ends up turning into one big enough that the offender could buy a car when its all said and done. They fine you for not being able to pay the fines they fine you for. Then they put you in jail and expect you to pay them for housing you in a place you never should have been in the first place.. NOW WHAT SENSE DOES THAT MAKE.? The cycle never seems to end once they have you in their grasp! Its absolutely outrageous and technically ILLEAGLE.. A FEDERAL judge last year finally came forward and spoke out against the system for their criminal attemps to jail a citizen for being unable to pay fines.. SO LISTEN TO WHAT I'M SAYING TO YOU NOW.. IT IS ILLEAGLE TO IMPRISON SOMEONE WHO IS TO POOR TO PAY THE OUTRAGEOUS FINES THE COURT GIVES THE LESS FORTUNATE.. STAND UP AND FIGHT THIS TRAVESTY.. STOP THE CYCLE OF ABUSE OF THE PEOPLE

Anonymous

"ill eagle" and "loosing" your job. Thanks for your brilliant insights into how everything should work. Focus on reforming our education system. You are another shining example of the dumbing down of America and the failure of the public education system.

Anonymous

You broke the law you were driving on a suspended license. Why were your license suspended in the first place. If you actually cared for your family and your ability to care for them you shouldn't allowed your license to get suspended in the first place

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