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Judge who forced defendants to give blood or go to jail censured after SPLC complaint

The Alabama Court of the Judiciary censured a circuit court judge today who forced defendants unable to pay court debt to give blood or face jail time – three months after the SPLC filed an ethics complaint against the judge.

Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins received the censure after admitting that he violated the Canons of Judicial Ethics as part of an agreement reached with the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission, which brought ethics charges against him after receiving the SPLC’s complaint.

“The Judicial Inquiry Commission is sending a clear message that the constitutional rights of the poor must be respected in Alabama courtrooms,” said Sara Zampierin, SPLC senior staff attorney. “No one should be forced to give blood or go to jail simply because they cannot afford to pay their court fines and fees. And no one’s rights should be tied to their bank account. Today’s hearing is an encouraging sign for anyone who believes in equal justice under the law.”  

The censure is a public statement by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary that Wiggins acted improperly and violated five provisions of the state’s Canons of Judicial Ethics necessary to uphold the integrity and public confidence in the court system. Wiggins will remain a judge. He was, however, suspended from the bench when the charges were filed last week until the final judgment was issued in his case today.    

The SPLC ethics complaint describes how 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 – a violation of judicial ethics and the U.S. and Alabama constitutions. Dozens of defendants in criminal cases, which can be as minor as hunting violations, had packed the courtroom for a hearing on the restitution, fines, court costs and fees they still owed. 

“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.” 

Without speaking to the judge about their financial situation, many indigent defendants gave blood out of fear of going 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.”