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ACLU Sues Lexington County

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DEBTORS’ PRISON?

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a class action lawsuit against Lexington County, South Carolina – accusing the Midlands, S.C. government of operating a modern day “debtors’ prison.”

The suit – filed on behalf of multiple indigent plaintiffs – accuses the county of issuing arrest warrants for individuals who are unable to pay fines or court fees associated with minor violations (i.e. parking tickets).

Named in the suit are sheriff Jay Koon and magistrate Rebecca Adams, among others.

From Rewire:

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.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Cayeshia Cashel Johnson, spent fifty-five days in jail after she was arrested for being unable to pay $1,287.50 in court fines.

At the time of her arrest, the complaint alleges, she was working three jobs in an effort to provide for her four young children.  She lost all three of those jobs due to her incarceration.

Another plaintiff spent three weeks in jail over her failure to pay a fine of less than $650.

“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,” noted Rewire’s Imani Gandy. “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.

In addition to recovering actual and punitive damages on behalf of the five plaintiffs participating in the suit, the ACLU action seeks an injunction against Lexington County that would bar it from making similar arrests in the future.

Similar actions are being contemplated in other Palmetto State counties, we’re told.

So … are the allegations true?  We’ll have to see when this case goes to trial.

Local judges tell us they routinely hold “rule to show cause” hearings for individuals who fail to pay fines as agreed upon in court-mandated payment plans.  These hearings are intended to give the debtor “maximum flexibility” in meeting their financial obligations.

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