COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina county has been violating the constitutional rights of people who can’t afford to pay fines and fees for low-level offenses, jailing them for weeks on end in what amounts to a “modern-day debtors prison,” according to a lawsuit filed Thursday.
In the complaint, filed in federal court, attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union accuse Lexington County of setting up a system that doesn’t put enough resources toward the defense of people who can’t afford lawyers. That, according to the lawsuit, leads to more impoverished defendants not getting adequate legal representation that could help them set up plans to pay their costs and ultimately avoid jail.
The ACLU is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of five named plaintiffs. One woman was jailed for three weeks over unpaid court costs of $647. Another was arrested on a Saturday morning at home, in front of her children, and jailed for nearly two months because she couldn’t pay $1,900 in fines and fees.
A county spokesman did not immediately comment on the lawsuit.
Lexington County, the ACLU said, has two policies in particular that discriminate against indigent defendants. Under something called a default payment policy, when people can’t pay fines in full at their sentencing, magistrates impose “a payment plan requiring steep monthly payments that are usually beyond the individual’s financial means.” When defendants can’t make timely payments, they’re arrested.
Not adequately considering someone’s ability to pay fines before jailing them due to nonpayment, the ACLU said, violates a decades-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The county also routinely holds trials in absentia for indigent defendants who can’t for whatever reason attend a scheduled hearing, holding trials without defendants – even if they’ve requested a continuance – and ordered them jailed.
In the 2015-16 fiscal year, according to the lawsuit, Lexington County’s Central Traffic Court and district magistrate courts collected more than $1.4 million in revenue from traffic and criminal fines.
The suit accuses top judicial officials in Lexington County of deliberately not putting more resources toward the magistrate court system so that separate proceedings could be held to help determine a defendant’s ability to pay. The lawsuit also accuses county council members of inadequately funding the system that provides lawyers for people who can’t afford them.
The longstanding practice of arresting people who can’t pay their court costs has “instilled fear and panic among the poorest residents of the County and surrounding region,” lawyers for the ACLU wrote. “Indigent people who owe money to Lexington County feel pressured to divert funds for basic necessities_food, medication, utilities, rent, and transportation_to avoid jail and the devastating impact of incarceration on their families, loved ones, jobs, and housing.”
Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. Of the four of those cases that have been resolved, the ACLU said it has won settlements or rulings that requiring reforms to end the practice.
This story corrects typo in headline.