BILOXI, Miss. — In the latest pushback against the national scourge of debtors' prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and jailing of poor people in Biloxi, Mississippi, without a hearing or representation by counsel. Victims are told they can avoid jail only if they pay the entire amount of outstanding court fines and fees up front, in full, and in cash.
"It's essentially a jailhouse shakedown. Cities across the country, like Biloxi, are scrambling to generate revenue, and they're doing it off the backs of poor people," said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "Being poor is not a crime. Yet across America, people are being locked up because they can't afford to pay traffic fines and fees. This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution."
Today's filing follows a similar ACLU lawsuit brought earlier this month in Washington state, as well as a recent ACLU lawsuit in Georgia that led to systemic reform. Defendants are the city of Biloxi, Biloxi Police Chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, and for-profit Judicial Correction Services, Inc.
The percentage of people living in poverty in Biloxi has doubled since 2009. Yet during this period, the city, through the Biloxi Municipal Court, has aggressively pursued court fines and fee payments from indigent people by issuing warrants when payments are missed. The warrants charge debtors with failure to pay, order their arrest and jailing in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center, and explicitly state that debtors can avoid jail only if they pay the full amount of fines and fees in cash.
"It's like squeezing water from a stone," said Choudhury.
Plaintiffs Qumotria Kennedy and Joseph Anderson are among the victims of this illegal scheme.
Kennedy was thrown in jail for five nights following her arrest on a warrant for failure to pay traffic fines. She was not provided a court hearing on her ability to pay, informed of
her right to request counsel, or appointed counsel. Kennedy was afraid for her daughter, who did not know where she was. Kennedy was ultimately fired from her part-time cleaning job because she missed work while jailed for her fines.
"As a single mother struggling to provide for myself and my child, being jailed for not having money was devastating. I hope others don't have to suffer or be mistreated this way simply because they are poor. It's just not right," Kennedy said.
Anderson, who has a disability, was at home when police arrested him on a warrant charging him with failure to pay a traffic fine. He was jailed for seven nights before finally being brought before the Biloxi Municipal Court. During Anderson's eventual hearing, the judge failed to inform Anderson of his right to a court-appointed attorney as a person who is indigent.
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.
The complaint, Kennedy v. City of Biloxi, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi in Gulfport. It cites violations of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth and 14th Amendments. The ACLU of Mississippi and Simon & Teeuwissen PLLC are co-counsel.
More details, including plaintiff stories and a photo slideshow, are at: https://www.aclu.org/cases/kennedy-v-city-biloxi