March 19, 2015

ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union and DeKalb County, Georgia, announced a settlement in a federal lawsuit that alleged that practices resulted in the jailing of people unable to pay court-ordered fines in traffic cases. The agreement includes policy changes that could serve as a model in Georgia and across the country.

The lawsuit was filed in January on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a teenager who claims he was jailed in DeKalb County because he could not afford to pay court fines and probation fees stemming from a traffic ticket. The ACLU charged that Thompson's constitutional rights to counsel and an indigency hearing were violated.

Under the settlement, DeKalb County and the other defendants denied liability to Thompson, but the chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court agreed to take measures to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to make fine and fee payments required as a condition of probation for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses. The measures include:
 

  • Adoption of a "bench card"  that provides judges instructions to avoid sending people to jail because they owe court fines and are unable to pay. The card lists the legal alternatives to jail and outlines the procedure for determining someone’s ability to pay.  It also instructs judges on how to protect people's right to counsel in probation revocation proceedings.
  • Training and guidance to Recorder's Court personnel involved in misdemeanor probation on probationers' right to counsel in revocation proceedings and right to an indigency hearing before jailing for failure to pay fines and fees.
  • Revision of forms to let people charged with probation violations know of their right to court-appointed counsel in probation revocation proceedings, and their right to request a waiver of any public defender fees they cannot afford.

The settlement also provides for a monetary payment to Thompson and his legal counsel.

"Being poor is not a crime, and these measures will help ensure that people’s freedom will not rest on their ability to pay traffic fines and fees they cannot afford," said ACLU attorney Nusrat Choudhury. "These measures also serve as a model for courts across Georgia and in other states to help ensure that our poorest and richest citizens are treated equally and fairly."

"Before the filing of this lawsuit, the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court began to develop a plan for a different private probation model. A new provider was selected under a contract which cut supervisory fees dramatically, allowed for little or no reporting, telephone reporting, and the conversion of fines to civil obligations at the request of the defendant. This civil payment model, which has been in place at the court for years on county ordinance violations, should not result in revocations with the possibility of incarceration. Both the Recorder's Court and the DeKalb County governing authority supported this change," said Chief Judge Nelly Withers of the DeKalb County Recorder's Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 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. Thompson alleges that he was jailed for five days because he could not afford to pay $838 in traffic fines and fees, despite the fact that he tried his best to make payments.

The case, Thompson v. DeKalb County, was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. Rogers & Hardin LLP, the ACLU of Georgia, and Southern Center for Human Rights are co-counsel for the plaintiff.

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