The city of Alexander City, Alabama, 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.
In a town where almost 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, hundreds of impoverished people had been jailed or otherwise affected within just two years. The SPLC sought an injunction to stop the abuse by filing a federal class action lawsuit. It described multiple violations of the U.S. Constitution and Alabama law.
When a person appeared in municipal court, the judge did not determine their ability to pay. There was generally no discussion about the right to a lawyer and they were not appointed in cases involving fines and costs – depriving defendants of their right to counsel.
People who could not pay their fines in full were arrested by police without a warrant or probable cause. This happened even for people who brought a partial payment but needed time to come up with the rest.
Rather than offer community service to the indigent or allow individuals to set up a payment plan, people were held at the city jail until someone paid the fine or until they “sat 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 violated their 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law. The warrantless arrests violated Alabama law and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The arrests also violated individuals’ right to counsel, protected by the Sixth Amendment.
Plaintiff Amanda Underwood had been jailed twice for fines she could not pay. She was not provided an attorney or informed about her right to an attorney. 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 child support payments during his imprisonment.