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SPLC ethics complaint: Alabama judge forced defendants with court debt to give blood or go to jail

Incident illustrates shocking disregard for poor people overloaded with court debt, unable to pay.

The SPLC filed a judicial ethics complaint against an Alabama judge who forced people unable to pay court fines and fees to give blood or face jail time.

Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins threatened defendants in his court with jail on Sept. 17, noting that the sheriff “had enough handcuffs” for those unable to pay and unwilling to donate blood, according to the complaint filed Monday with the Judicial Inquiry Commission of Alabama.

“People who couldn’t pay their court debt with cash literally paid with their blood,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC staff attorney. “This is a shocking disregard for not only judicial ethics but for the constitutional rights of defendants.”

The Judicial Inquiry Commission could recommend that Wiggins face ethics charges in the Alabama Court of the Judiciary.

Defendants in more than 500 criminal cases, which can be as minor as hunting violations, were mailed notices to appear before Wiggins on Sept. 17. Dozens showed up to pack the courtroom for a hearing on the restitution, fines, court costs and fees they still owed. When Wiggins took the bench, he offered defendants with empty pockets and full veins an option.

“If you do not have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money,” Wiggins said, according to the complaint.

Wiggins said to consider the option of giving blood “a discount rather than putting you in jail.” However, no one who donated blood received any “discount” on their court debt; they simply received a reprieve from being thrown in jail.

Most of the people in the courtroom still owed thousands of dollars to the court – even after years of making payments, according to the complaint. Virtually every case included fees that indigent defendants had been charged to recoup money for their court-appointed counsel, the complaint states.

Without speaking to the judge about their financial situation, many indigent defendants gave blood out of fear of going to jail. The complaint outlines several ethics violations, including failure to demonstrate professional competence and failure to uphold the integrity of the law. It also describes how forced blood donations violate the U.S. and Alabama constitutions.

Listen to an audio recording of the judge giving the option to give blood or go to jail: 

“I normally do [give blood],” a donor tells a blood bank staffer in an audio recording obtained by the SPLC. “But I don’t like being told I have to or I’m going to jail.”

“Yeah, I gotcha,” the staffer responds. “I thought, I thought everybody was joking.”

In another recording, a blood donation ends with the donor telling a staffer: “Don’t thank me, thank the judge.”

The complaint notes that a person cannot be legally sentenced to jail over debt they cannot pay, but the judge failed to assess the defendants’ ability to pay before the hearing. Unfortunately, the threat of jailing the poor for nonpayment is not a problem unique to Perry County courts, though the alternative of a blood payment may be.

“Far too often in Alabama, we find that your legal rights are tied to your bank account,” Zampierin said. “It’s a two-tiered system of justice – one for those who can pay and another for those who can’t. We must stop exploiting the poor.”

The complaint says that Wiggins routinely requires indigent defendants to pay for the cost of their court-appointed attorney – an action that chills their Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel. Alabama law allows courts to charge defendants for a court-appointed attorney but only when the court determines a defendant has the ability to pay.

“The case law is clear, and Alabama’s statutes and rules are clear,” Zampierin said. “Judges may not jail someone simply because they are poor and not able to pay. We’re asking the Judicial Inquiry Commission to sanction Judge Wiggins for his conduct. And we’re also calling on all courts in Alabama to re-examine their procedures to ensure that the poor are not being wrongfully threatened with jail.”

Photo credit AP Photo/Dave Martin