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Charges dismissed against Alabama woman jailed for not paying $85 trash bill

Clarification: This story has been clarified to state that Nortasha Jackson’s arrest warrant was issued for her failure to pay the trash collection bill for May, June and July 2022.

Nortasha Jackson says she is finally starting to feel a sense of relief.

Last November, the 49-year-old woman was arrested and jailed for failing to pay an $85 trash collection bill to the city of Valley, Alabama, that was three months overdue – even after trying to make arrangements to pay the bill.

In a hearing today, Chambers County District Judge M. Calvin Milford dismissed the case after Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys filed a motion on Jackson’s behalf.

“Thank God this part is over,” the Chambers County native said after the charges against her were dropped.

Punished for poverty

Police arrested Jackson on Nov. 26, 2022 – the Saturday after Thanksgiving – at her home, in front of her cousin and her cousin’s three children.

Nortasha Jackson
Nortasha Jackson, center, stands with SPLC  Senior Staff Attorney Micah West, left, and SPLC Senior Investigator Sakeena White, right, outside the Chambers County Courthouse in Lafayette, Alabama, on Feb. 22, 2023, after Jackson’s charges for being unable to pay an $85 trash collection bill were dismissed. (Credit: SPLC)

“The Alabama and federal constitutions prohibit prosecuting people simply because they cannot pay a garbage bill,” said SPLC Senior Staff Attorney Micah West. “Although we are pleased that Ms. Jackson’s ordeal is over, the city of Valley is currently prosecuting other people for violating a statute that does not make nonpayment a crime. We ask officials to dismiss those charges, too, and to take proactive steps to ensure that people who fall behind on their trash bills are not unfairly punished for their poverty.”

Jackson, who works as a cashier at a local convenience store, depends on a disability payment to help her make ends meet. She said that she currently lives on approximately $1,000 a month, which makes keeping up with bills a challenge amid rising utility and food costs.

“You think you are doing OK, then you get a $400 power bill that you have to pay,” Jackson said. “I have to keep up my house payments and keep the power on, then make do with what I have. Once you fall behind one month, then you come to the next month and you fall behind again, it’s hard to catch up.”

Although her house is small, Jackson is proud of it but was discouraged after the city suspended her trash service. Over the last seven months, uncollected trash has piled up in her backyard, creating not only an eyesore but health issues.

“I want to get things back to where they were,” Jackson said. “It is not a big house, but this is the only thing I will have to pass any wealth on to my children. So keeping it and keeping it in good condition is important to me.” 

Jackson is not alone in fighting what amounts to a threat of debtors’ prison for falling behind on a trash bill with the city of Valley. Several dozen other Valley residents have been criminally charged under a 1975 law, even though nonpayment is traditionally treated as a civil matter.

SPLC attorneys are currently representing Jackson and one other client who has been arrested over trash fees, although they are discussing similar cases with several additional residents.

The issues in Valley came to light after 82-year-old Martha Menefield was arrested for owing $77 to the city for trash collection. Her story went viral, garnering attention from national media outlets.

Threat of incarceration

In Jackson’s case, an arrest warrant was issued in August 2022 after she failed to pay her bill for May, June and July. Once she was locked in a holding cell, police told her she had 20 minutes to post a $2,500 bail or she would be transported to the Chambers County jail and held until she appeared before a judge.

Jackson had to borrow money from family members to pay $285 to a bondsman to secure her release. The nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative is covering the past due bill. The dismissal of the charges also relieves Jackson of any court costs.

Still, the stress of dealing with the threat of incarceration and the buildup of garbage at her home has taken a toll on Jackson, who said her anxiety has been exacerbated through the ordeal.

“I pray to God I never have to go through this again,” Jackson said. “I pray to God no one has to go through it again.”

Picture at top: Nortasha Jackson stands outside the Chambers County Courthouse in Lafayette, Alabama, on Feb. 22, 2023, after charges against her for being unable to pay an $85 trash collection bill were dismissed. (Credit: SPLC)