SPLC lawsuit: Alabama city operating debtors’ prison

The town is violating the rights of the poor with a practice outlawed almost 200 years ago.

The town of Alexander City, Alabama, has operated a modern-day debtors’ prison for at least a decade by arresting and jailing low-income people unable to pay their fines and court costs for traffic tickets and misdemeanors, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center today.

In a town where almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, hundreds of impoverished people have been jailed or otherwise affected within just the past two years, according to the class action lawsuit that describes multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution and Alabama law. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to stop this abuse.

“It is time to stop hauling people off to jail simply because they are poor,” said Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director. “Debtors’ prisons were outlawed almost 200 years ago for good reasons, but the practice has been alive and well in Alexander City for at least a decade. The city needs to realize that people’s constitutional rights aren’t determined by the size of their bank account.”

When a person appears in municipal court, the judge does not determine their ability to pay. There is generally no discussion about the right to a lawyer and they are not appointed in cases involving fines and costs – depriving defendants of their right to counsel.

People who cannot pay their fines in full are arrested by police without a warrant or probable cause. This happens even for people who bring a partial payment, but need time to come up with the rest. The municipal court for this town of about 15,000 people is in the same building as the jail and police station.

Rather than offer community service to the indigent or allow individuals to set up a payment plan, people are held at the city jail until someone pays the fine or until they “sit out” their time at a rate of $20 per day toward their debt – or $40 per day if appointed as a jail trustee to do jobs such as laundry, cleaning and washing police cars.

By jailing people for their inability to pay, the city violates their 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law. The warrantless arrests violate Alabama law and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The arrests also violate individuals’ right to counsel, protected by the Sixth Amendment.

Plaintiff Amanda Underwood has been jailed twice for fines she could not pay. She was not provided an attorney or informed about her right to an attorney. She’s facing the possibility of being jailed a third time after being ticketed for driving with a suspended license as she drove her friend’s car to pick up food for the friend’s children. She’s afraid of what will happen when she goes to court in October for this latest ticket.

Underwood’s job at a fast food restaurant isn’t enough to cover her expenses. She hasn’t even been able to earn enough money to turn the water back on in her home. She also walks two hours each way to her job because she cannot afford a car – or even a bicycle – to make the commute.

“What Alexander City is doing is not right,” she said. “People are afraid to go to court because they know that they don’t have the money to pay their fines. They know that they will be locked up away from their family and kids. This shouldn’t be happening in America.”

D’Angelo Foster, another plaintiff, lost his job after being jailed for 35 days because he could not pay his fines and court costs. He also fell behind on his child support payments during his imprisonment.

“It’s clear that Alexander City has no problem throwing away a person’s life over a small fine,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC staff attorney. “The city is showing a complete disregard for the constitutional rights of its low-income residents.”

Javarski Hutchins knows firsthand that people are going to jail because they aren’t being made aware of their rights. Hutchins, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, was arrested in July and incarcerated when he couldn’t pay the fines and fees associated with traffic tickets he received. Serving several days in jail would have been disastrous for him. He would lose his job if he wasn’t at work by 5 a.m. the next morning.

The SPLC became aware of his case during its investigation for this lawsuit and intervened on his behalf, arranging a court hearing that determined Hutchins didn’t have the means to pay his fine. He was released in time for work and ultimately given an extra 22 days to pay his fine.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, names Alexander City and its police chief, Willie Robinson, as defendants. In 2014, an SPLC lawsuit ended a similar practice in the nearby state capital of Montgomery.