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Old June 10th, 2017, 11:54 AM   #1
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Join Date: Nov 2005
Location: California
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Post ACLU Files Lawsuit to End Debtors’ Prison Practices in Lexington County, South Caroli

ACLU Files Lawsuit to End Debtors’ Prison Practices
in Lexington County, South Carolina

Thursday’s lawsuit, filed on behalf of five indigent plaintiffs, including Brown, alleges that Lexington County has been engaging in the equivalent of modern-day “debtors’ prison” practices: issuing arrest warrants for people who are unable to pay court fees or court-ordered fines for minor infractions like parking tickets, and jailing them without offering them lawyers or determining whether they have the ability to pay in the first place.

The lawsuit names as defendants Lexington County; the sheriff of Lexington County, Bryan Koon; a judge of one of the magistrate courts, Rebecca Adams; and a few other Lexington County court officials.

At issue in the case are two county policies: The Default Payment Policy and the Trial in Absentia Policy. Under the Default Payment Policy, a court will impose a payment plan for fees or fines, requiring steep monthly payments that are often beyond the individual’s financial means. If the person fails to pay, the court issues a bench warrant ordering law enforcement to arrest and jail the individual unless the full amount owed is paid.

Under the Trial in Absentia Policy, the complaint says, Lexington County courts order the arrest and incarceration of people unable to pay fines and fees in connection with trials and sentencing proceedings that are held in their absence. Even if the individual contacts the court to request another hearing date and to explain why they cannot appear at the scheduled hearing, courts will convict them in absentia, and sentence them to jail pending payment of fines and fees. Before notifying these individuals of their sentences, courts issue bench warrants ordering law enforcement to arrest and jail the individual, again unless the full amount owed is paid.

Simply put, courts cannot jail people because they are too poor to pay fines—sometimes called “pay or stay.” In 1833, Congress abolished the use of debtors’ prisons and in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit in a case called Bearden v. Georgia.

In Bearden, the Supreme Court noted that it had “long been sensitive to the treatment of indigents in our criminal justice system.” It continued: “There can be no equal justice where the kind of a trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.”

If a person has the means to pay court fines but simply refuses to do so, that person can be jailed after a court determines that they had the ability to pay but willfully refused. But it is patently unconstitutional to lock up a person in jail if they are poor and simply do not have enough money to pay the fines.

Yet that is what has been happening in Lexington County, according to the ACLU. And often, it is people of color who are caught up in this unfair system.

Go get 'em ACLU...
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