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SPLC secures release of Alabama man jailed after failing to pay $88 trash bill

Though debtors’ prison is supposed to be a thing of the past, a 60-year-old man in Baldwin County, Ala., spent two weeks in jail after failing to pay an $88 trash bill.

Though debtors’ prison is supposed to be a thing of the past, a 60-year-old man in Baldwin County, Ala., spent two weeks in jail after failing to pay an $88 trash bill.

Earlier this month, the SPLC helped secure his release, allowing him to return to his family.

Richard Van Horn was arrested on July 4 for his failure to pay the trash bill for a property he rented for three to four months. He was charged with a misdemeanor but was not entitled to a court-appointed attorney since the offense itself cannot result in jail time. Yet Van Horn found himself behind bars because he did not have the money to post the $500 cash bond needed to guarantee his next appearance in court. The judge could have changed the bond amount, but refused.

Van Horn faced the prospect of sitting in jail until his next court hearing, which was set for the end of August – almost two months away.

“It’s unconstitutional to jail poor people simply because they cannot pay,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC staff attorney. “We’re happy that Mr. Van Horn has been reunited with his family, but we know that many more people serve jail time because they have no other option.”

Before his arrest, Van Horn – a former law enforcement officer – had never even had a traffic ticket. He lives with his wife, stepdaughter and her 1-year-old child in the Gulf Coast county of Baldwin. He was laid off from his job of more than four years in October. He has been unable to find steady work.

The only source of income for the family of four is the Social Security benefits that his wife receives based on her disability. With a little more than $700 a month to cover rent, food, utilities and other essentials, the family lives well below the poverty line. Paying a $500 cash bond is simply out of reach for the family.

Van Horn’s wife suffers from chronic and debilitating illnesses, and he is her sole caretaker. He transports her to doctors’ appointments, monitors and administers her medication, and does all of the grocery shopping and other day-to-day tasks.

Jailing Van Horn would mean his wife would be left to care for herself.

He explained his situation to the judge, telling him that he had no way to pay $500 in cash. The judge refused to modify the bond amount. He set the next hearing for the end of August, effectively sentencing Van Horn to almost two months jail because of his inability to pay – a violation of the U.S. and Alabama constitutions.

“It’s amazing to me that, in this day and age, it’s possible to go to jail just because of a debt,” he said.

The SPLC petitioned the court for Van Horn’s release. After seeing the petition, the district attorney and the judge agreed to release him without bail.

“This shouldn’t happen to anyone else, but we know that it does,” Zampierin said. “People in Mr. Van Horn’s position quickly learn that the system works only for those with money.

It’s our duty to make sure that the system serves all people, regardless of how much money is in their bank account.”