Cayeshia Johnson

Brown v. Lexington County, et al

Location: South Carolina
Status: Closed (Settled)
Last Update: March 28, 2023

What's at Stake

This case is part of a nationwide fight against criminalization of poverty and, specifically, debtors’ prisons. On June 1, 2017, the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC filed a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and incarceration of indigent people in Lexington County, South Carolina, for failure to pay fines and fees, without determining willfulness or providing assistance to counsel. Those targeted by this long-standing practice could avoid jail only if they paid the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front and in full. Indigent people who were unable to pay were incarcerated for weeks to months without ever seeing a judge, having a court hearing, or receiving help from a lawyer. The result was one of the most draconian debtors’ prisons uncovered by the ACLU since 2010.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, in Lexington County, hundreds, if not more than a thousand, impoverished people each year were locked up simply because they could not afford to pay fines in traffic and misdemeanor cases in the County’s magistrate courts. Though poverty had increased in Lexington County since 2012—with poverty rates for Black and Latino residents at more than double the rate for white residents—the County continued to rely on revenue from fines and fees in magistrate court cases. The system issued more than a thousand warrants each year to order the arrest and immediate incarceration of people who owed court fines and fees unless they paid the full amount of their debts before being booked in jail.

The result was a two-tiered system of justice. People who could afford to pay bought their freedom, while poor people were locked away in the Lexington County Detention Center, causing their families to suffer, their jobs to disappear, and their chances of escaping poverty to become even more remote. These debtors’ prison practices trapped poor people, particularly people of color, in a complicated and expensive criminal justice maze with too many ways in and no realistic ways out.

Lexington County also grossly underfunded its public defender system for magistrate court cases. As of 2013, the County did not have a single public defender assigned to represent criminal defendants in its magistrate courts. At the time the lawsuit was filed, that number had risen to only one, and fewer than one in ten qualifying defendants in the magistrate courts were appointed an attorney.

Plaintiff Cayeshia Johnson was a victim of this unlawful system.

She was arrested at a traffic stop and jailed for 55 days because she couldn’t pay $1,287.50 in fines and fees stemming from a minor car accident roughly six months earlier. Despite her efforts to get a court date that she could attend and a payment plan, the court found her guilty and sentenced her without her even being present in court. She didn’t know there was a warrant for her arrest until the officer who arrested her told her so. Ms. Johnson had three part-time jobs to support her four young children, and she lost all three jobs while behind bars.

These policies were clearly unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly 40 years ago that locking people up merely because they cannot afford to pay court fines is contrary to American values of fairness and equality embedded in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court made clear that judges cannot jail someone for failure to pay without first considering their ability to pay, efforts to acquire money, and alternatives to incarceration. And 60 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that the Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial guaranteed all defendants facing the possibility of imprisonment a right to an attorney.

The complaint, Brown v. Lexington County, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It cited violations of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The ACLU of South Carolina and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC are co-counsel.

Just a few months after the complaint was filed, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Beatty issued a statewide memorandum stating that he had learned defendants were being incarcerated without representation or having waived their right to counsel and reiterated the constitutional right to counsel for defendants facing imprisonment. Lexington County recalled nearly 6,000 bench warrants, spanning almost four decades. It also ceased the unlawful use of these “bench warrants” to arrest and jail poor people who could not afford to pay money to the courts.

We continued to pursue the lawsuit to ensure that there would be no return to the illegal debt collection practices and to rectify the County’s systemic underfunding of public defense in the magistrate courts.

UPDATE: Following years of litigation, in August 2022, the Honorable Sherrie A. Lydon, federal judge for the District of South Carolina, issued a ruling on the parties’ Cross Motions for Summary Judgment. With respect to the 6th Amendment claims, the Court concluded that Lexington County “has engaged in policies, procedures, and customs that cause systemic deficiencies in funding, staffing and assignment of cases to public defenders with the result that indigent people in the [magistrate courts] are deprived of court-appointed counsel.” Following the Court’s Order, we reached a settlement with Lexington County, which was subsequently approved by the Court, greatly expanding funding for the provision of public defense in the Lexington County magistrate courts. Under the settlement agreement, the County must provide its circuit public defender with enough funding to hire and retain six attorneys, one paralegal, one investigator, one administrative assistant, and one social worker. These positions will be exclusively assigned to the Lexington County magistrate courts, and the County must continue its funding for these positions in each and every subsequent year.

With respect to the other claims, the Court held that “Plaintiffs have put forth evidence of a widespread practice at the [Lexington County magistrate courts] wherein nonpayment bench warrants were routinely issued resulting in Plaintiffs’ and others’ incarceration without Bearden hearings, advisement of the right to counsel, or assistance of court-appointed counsel.” However, the court dismissed those claims—which were brought against the chief and associate chief magistrate judges for their administration and oversight of the policies—based on federal court abstention doctrine and judicial immunity. Similar claims against the Lexington County Sherriff were likewise dismissed. We appealed the dismissed claims to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. We subsequently also reached a settlement pertaining to the dismissed claims and withdrew our appeal.

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