This System Tramples on Poor People

Today the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of  poor people who were jailed by Biloxi, Mississippi, because of their failure to pay traffic tickets. The lawsuit is the latest action in the pushback against the national problem of modern day debtors' prisons, where people are required to go to jail when they can’t afford to pay the tickets or fines. Below two of our clients, girlfriend and boyfriend Qumotria Kennedy and Joseph Anderson, explain how being sent to prison for small fines and fees can dramatically alter people’s lives for the worse without any public benefit.

Qumotria Kennedy

I was a passenger in a car with a friend one day in July when a police officer pulled us over. The officer ran my name for warrants, made me step out of the car, and put handcuffs on me.

From there he took me to the Biloxi police station and then to jail. At the police station, they told me I would have had to pay $1,001 in cash to get out. That was what I owed in traffic fines and fees that I hadn’t been able to pay. They didn’t bring me to court, give me a lawyer, or even tell me that I had a right to one. 

I didn't have the money. I was sad, upset, and crying. I’m a single mom, so I knew I’d have to be in jail and leave my daughter with my friend. My daughter didn’t even know where I was or what happened for an entire night.

No one told me how long I’d be in jail. Each day, I was wondering when I would see my daughter or be brought to court. In the end, I was locked up five days.

When I was in jail, I lost my part-time job. Now I’m just on call as a cleaning person, so I only go to work once or twice a week. I’m struggling on so little.

Now they want me to pay hundreds of dollars a month for my fines and fees. But I just don’t have the money. I asked the probation officer if I could do community service instead, but she said there was nothing she could do.

I owe so much money that I can’t pay. Every day, I worry that I could get arrested and sent back to jail. 

I decided to bring a lawsuit against Biloxi because I don’t like what the city is doing to people. All it cares about is money. Biloxi locked me up for being poor. But it costs them money to keep me in jail. So this system doesn’t even make any sense.

I hope that everybody knows that the system is trampling on poor people, and it’s not fair.

Joseph Anderson

Joseph Anderson

When I got a $200 traffic ticket, I knew I wouldn’t be able to pay it. I made a payment or two from my disability checks, but I was living on so little, I couldn’t pay any more. The Biloxi police issued a warrant on me, but I didn’t know. The police knocked on my door, reached inside, and grabbed me.

My stepson was there, and it felt embarrassing. I felt ashamed because I was always preaching to him about staying out of trouble and here is this police officer who knocks on my door, handcuffs me, and arrests me.

When he put handcuffs on me, it really hurt. My health was really bad. Just a few years before, I had multiple heart attacks and a stroke in just a couple of months.

When Biloxi police arrested me for fines and fees, I wasn’t well. After the heart attacks and stroke, I became physically disabled. I can’t work because my mobility and strength are not what they used to be. Before, I was working at Best Western doing maintenance and mechanic work. Now I’m just living one day at a time. 

I get my Social Security check and pay my bills, and what I have left of that I try to buy gas. It’s hard making ends meet.

When the police took me to jail, they said I could pay $220 in cash for my release. I felt bad because I didn’t have anyone to call who could lend or give me the money. I had just gotten off walking on my crutch, and I really wasn’t functioning right. The food was disgusting. There was a blanket with holes in. They kept me in jail for seven nights.

Do I want to help other people by suing Biloxi? Heck yeah. It’s terrible here. I’m not afraid to go public with how the city is trying to get money from people who just don’t have it.

I hope this lawsuit will help make the system better. I hope people don’t get arrested and jailed for back fines like I did. 

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Anonymous

Do you even know how to read? The 1st woman was a mother supporting her & her child on a part time job. Cut back on extras?.. What extras are you talking about? Choosing between filet mignon or lobster?..I'm sure she stretched every penny that she got. And I'm pretty sure she had days when she didn't eat so that her child could. As for the gentleman what part of DISABILITY did you not understand? Do you think it pays what he was making at his job.? So many of todays working class are 1 or 2 lost paychecks away from homelessness. The purpose of the article is to show how there's another way to make billions of the back of those who can least afford it. If someone whos able to pay the they get out by paying the fine. But god forbid they can't, they are kept in "debtors prison" incurring more fines they can afford even LESS because now they lost their jobs. Between forprofit prisons and juvenile detention centers the way to make $$$$ is to fill those cells up over & over. So guess who gets to stay in those cells? I bet everyone of those inmates LOVE the vacation time away from the hassles of worrying about rent, food, clorhing etc. When people lost like you voice cr*p like

Anonymous

Do you even know how to read? The 1st woman was a mother supporting her & her child on a part time job. Cut back on extras?.. What extras are you talking about? Choosing between filet mignon or lobster?..I'm sure she stretched every penny that she got. And I'm pretty sure she had days when she didn't eat so that her child could. As for the gentleman what part of DISABILITY did you not understand? Do you think it pays what he was making at his job.? So many of todays working class are 1 or 2 lost paychecks away from homelessness. The purpose of the article is to show how there's another way to make billions off the back of those who can least afford it. If someone who's able to pay they get out by paying the fine. But god forbid they can't, they are kept in "debtors prison" incurring more fines they can afford even LESS because now they lost their jobs. Between forprofit prisons and juvenile detention centers the way to make $$$$ is to fill those cells up over & over. So guess who gets to stay in those cells? I bet everyone of those inmates LOVE the vacation time away from the hassles of worrying about rent, food, clothing etc. When people like you voice cr*p like this I assume you either have never been poor or you don't know the meaning of the words empathy or compassion for someone not as obviously lucky as you. Its my 2nd thought that you're just an as°hole. BTW ..Im neither poor not rich. Im comfortably inbetween. But I have been working poor. Worked all my life & never collected a penny I didnt work for but was well aware that it was always a possibility. I paid my taxes & fica & whatever else was taken from my check before I ever got it because I understood it was for my help if I ever needed it. We need help as a country ro STOP this practice of squeezing every last cent out of those who can afford it the least. How about tossing slumlords and some CEO's of BIG COMPANIES into the slammers because of fines they dont pay. Owe $25 and go to jail. Owe 25 million and then get a tax brake. Yea sure....

Heather

Steve, Have you not heard of the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor? Do you not know that people of color are disproportionately targeted for traffic and parking violations and that those tickets have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with collecting revenue? Did you not know that debtors prisons are illegal, but people are being thrown into prison anyway? I'm sorry for feeling this way, but I hope you spend some time down on your luck, even for a just a bit so you can stop feeling so superior towards the rest of us.

Anonymous

Steve is typical of those who have probably never had to face anything like tickets for no good reason. If you drive, you are a potential mark for funding local government. If you get arrested for being a passenger in a car, you are probably in a district desperate or greedy for funding. It's not easy to cut back when you are already living close to the bone. There's a good chance that you really don't have the money if you have to stay in jail for a week. You can't cut back if you are already so poor there is nothing left just providing the necessities. Maybe the city is being sued for draconian penalties for a traffic ticket.

In South Carolina, trooper Sean Groubert shot a man for not driving with his seatbelt while on commercial property and this was not on the highway. The driver was told to show the trooper his license and when he went inside the cab to get it the brave cop bravely shot at him 4 times, hitting him once in the leg. If you are that afraid of everyone, you should not be on any police force and ticketing for 'RIDICULOUS' reasons like driving without a seat belt on private property is not a reason to ticket anyone.

Ann Williamson

Steve, I guess you aren't aware that traffic offenses are not ratifies state laws unless you are driving in a commercial capacity. They are revenue measures (taxes) because local governments are not funded by the taxpayers. It's how they get their salary. Understand? Probably not.

Anonymous

Ignorance is always arrogant. Ignorance feels superior, and loves having the perceived right to judge the inferior. Ignorance is blind, and will never have to feel humiliated about their horrifying behavior that actually defines their ignorance to everyone EXCEPT that person, who prefers to keep his eyes closed and his mouth open,

Anonymous

This could happen to anyone, unless you have the money to avoid it. If you are not in the country club set, you may find yourself laid off and maybe one fine day you get ticketed while going to buy dry staples like oatmeal and pasta at the shop. Ticket police are hiding waiting for largely victimless crimes of having a light out or Driving While Black or anything they want to say to give probable cause. We don't know what these people did, but DWB is a real threat to civilians and one of these did not even drive. More and more fines must be concocted to feed the local coffers while those who take the people to the edge continue their lavish lifestyles and the scrubbing of tickets for those who are connected. If Jean ValJean were living in this police state, he would feel right at home, other than adapting to the new gadgetry of the 21st century.

Ann Williamson

Like it never happens to white people. Wait, yes it does. Stop making it a racial issue and address the fact that the law required it to be a "pattern" or "practice" of targeting a certain group before a person can file a civil rights violation. The same exact thing has happened to me, a professional white female and the ACLU told me they don't handle these types of cases (if you're white), when it should not happen to anyone at all. By making it a racial issue, there is no remedy to file an individual civil rights violation...That is so righteous, right?

Anonymous

No one is acting like it only happens to black people. The two people featured in the article were black and there are instances of DWB and DWHispanic, although whites are as subject to trumped up tickets because green is the color they are after. Anyone can get a ticket, unless maybe a woman driving while speaking on a phone in a Mercedes or BMW might get away because she could be the mayor's wife. Anyone who thinks the problem does not include white folks has not been paying attention. Law enforcement ticket writers don't like driving school, because the chance to reduce points and fines nerfs them out of their pension. Their job existence is funding via tickets. There may be no advocacy unless we have big bucks - then we could pay the trumped up fines.

Haleigh

This is happening everywhere. The sentencing for all crimes is unaffordable to most. You have to pay for anger management, drug and alcohol classes, fines and fees; all to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars. And when this sentencing goes undone because it is unaffordable, the poor get arrested. This is happening in Helena, MT, where the ACLU has come out in support of building a new jail. Upwards of 200 new beds so that officers do not have to make better decisions about who to incarcerate.
In a state that has lost lawsuits, guilty of underfunding public representation, I fail to see how building a new jail will encourage us to fix the underlying problems of criminals in our system such as getting rid of mandatory jail sentences, mandatory sentencing that requires you to pay an expensive private agency, and unequal representation for the poor who suffer most under these sentences.
Shame on the ACLU.

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