MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Sonya Ayers said she thought the police officer was kidding when he said he had a warrant for her arrest on charges related to having her water shut off because of an unpaid bill. The 48-year-old Alabama resident was initially ticketed but then arrested last year on charges related to an under an ordinance of the city of Chickasaw that required people to maintain running water in her homes.
“I thought he was joking,” said Ayers, whose arrest came in November for failing to appear for a court. “I had never been in jail or any trouble, and I was almost certain that I couldn’t be put in jail for not having water.”
Ayers said she fell behind on her sewer bill last year while taking care of her elderly mother, leading to her water being shut off. She received a citation under the city ordinance and was ordered by the municipal court to pay a fine and made monthly supervision payments to Judicial Correction Services, a private, for-profit probation company. Ayers could not keep up with the payments and was arrested after failing to appear at a court hearing that she said she did not know she was supposed to attend.
Ayers said she ultimately spent a day in jail and had to pay more than $400 in fines and fees related to the citation.
The Chickasaw City Council repealed the ordinance Tuesday at the request of a legal group that said the ordinance punishes people for being poor. The Southern Poverty law Center had sent the city judge a letter in July arguing that it was unconstitutional to use criminal penalties such as jail to enforce a civil debt.
“It is only because someone is poor that they are in this situation,” SPLC Deputy Legal Director Sam Brooke said. “Failing to pay your water bill should not be a crime,” Brooke said.
She said that after her mother’s death, she had gone to a city building to get some paperwork notarized when a police officer told her she was under arrest.
Brooke praised the city’s action in repealing the ordinance, saying it will, “ensure that residents will not be prosecuted or face criminal penalties when they simply cannot afford to pay for running water in their home.”
Chickasaw City Councilman Adam Bourne said the ordinance was repealed to avoid litigation. Bourne said he was sympathetic toward those unable to pay their water bill.
However, Bourne said he believed the SPLC was inaccurately suggesting the city was using the ordinance to make money. He said it is also a public health issue if homes do not have running water. Bourne said he didn’t think many tickets were issued under it, and the arrest was for failure to appear, not the unpaid bill.
A call to the city’s mayor and attorney were not returned.