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Ebony Roberts, et al. v. Robert J. Black, et al.

A city court judge in Bogalusa, Louisiana, operated a modern-day debtors’ prison by illegally jailing indigent people unable to pay fines or court costs – ­including a man fined for stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family. The SPLC filed a federal lawsuit to stop the unconstitutional practice.

The federal lawsuit describes how Judge Robert J. Black routinely sent people to jail for failure to pay fines or court costs for minor traffic tickets or misdemeanor violations without determining why they couldn’t pay. The court was significantly funded through court costs and fees, creating an incentive for the judge to find people guilty and coerce payment through the threat of jail, according to the lawsuit. The court operated in a city where 35 percent of residents lived below the poverty line.

Black even created an illegal $50 “extension fee” defendants could pay to stay out of jail while they raised money to pay the fees and fines they still owed the court. The extension fee, which is not authorized by state law, is used to raise money for the court. Overall, court costs and fees have been used to cover budget shortfalls within the Bogalusa court system ranging from 20 to 30 percent.

Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in the United States nearly 200 years ago. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1983 ruling in Bearden v. Georgia found judges can’t send people to jail for being too poor to pay court fines. A judge must first consider whether the defendant has the ability to pay but “willfully” refuses.

Rozzie Scott, a 21-year-old Bogalusa resident, spent time in jail after he was unable to pay $450 in fines and court costs for stealing $5 worth of food from a local store to feed his family. Scott was released 4 hours later after his cousin paid the $50 extension fee. Black never asked Scott if he worked or why he couldn’t pay. He told other defendants they would go to jail if they couldn’t pay their fines and court costs or the extension fee.

The lawsuit, which names the judge and the city court as defendants, seeks class action status and a preliminary injunction to block the judge’s unconstitutional practices.