GALVESTON, Texas (CN) — A Texas town is preying on the poor, arresting them for traffic tickets and locking them in a “debtors’ prison” where they’re fed Pop-Tarts, three men claim in a federal class action.
George West et al. claim the City of Santa Fe’s manager, police chief, City Council and municipal judge held a meeting in the summer of 2015 where they mulled ways to cover a $650,000 budget hole.
“Shortly after the meeting about the budgetary shortfall, the municipal judge raised the fines for all tickets written by the Santa Fe Police Department,” the complaint states.
With the jacked-up fines the municipal court increased its earnings for the city by $20,045 from the previous year, to $225,562, according the complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
Santa Fe, pop. 12,860, is 35 miles southeast of Houston. Its median household income of around $61,000 is $10,000 more than the state median, according to city-data.com.
Despite that, there’s no shortage of working poor in the city who can’t afford traffic tickets, which makes them targets of the municipal judge and police chief, the ACLU says.
Joining West as named plaintiffs are Robert Jones and Brady Fuller. They sued Santa Fe, its Municipal Judge Carlton Getty and Police Chief Jeffrey Powell on Nov. 3.
Fuller lives in Santa Fe with his wife and three daughters. His work at a shipyard provides an income that qualifies the family for food stamps. Fuller says a Santa Fe police officer pulled him over in a school zone in 2015, though he was not speeding, and wrote him a ticket for an expired vehicle inspection sticker.
“As opposed to other people, who could write a check to resolve their cases, Mr. Fuller could not afford to pay his fine outright,” the complaint states.
Fuller says Judge Getty put him on a payment plan, without asking if he could make the payments or advising him of his right to an attorney, and a court clerk warned him that if he didn’t pay, a warrant would issue and he would be arrested.
“Neither the municipal judge nor the clerk advised Mr. Fuller that, by signing the papers for a payment plan, he was pleading to criminal charges. Mr. Fuller felt that he had no alternative to signing the papers,” the complaint states. “He circled ‘no contest,’ but no one explained what that meant. The judge sentenced Mr. Fuller to a fine.”
Fuller says he missed his payments and the court issued a “capias pro fine warrant” in the judge’s name for his arrest. Six months later, Fuller was pulled over driving his employer’s new work truck by a Texas state trooper who said he couldn’t read the truck’s temporary tags.
“The trooper ran Mr. Fuller’s license and contacted the Santa Fe marshal about his capias pro fine warrant. The trooper handcuffed Mr. Fuller, and the marshal picked him up and took him to jail,” the complaint states.
It’s against the law in Texas to jail people picked up on these warrants for more than one night, the ACLU says.
“The only liberty deprivation Texas law authorizes for failure to pay is a capias pro fine warrant directing officers to bring the person before an appropriate court immediately, or if that is impossible, to hold her in jail until the next business day,” the lawsuit states.
But Fuller says Santa Fe jailed him for three days, fed him Pop-Tarts for breakfast and lunch and frozen dinners, if he was lucky.
He says the jail staff forgot to give him his frozen dinner one night and he grew famished and yelled and kicked the cell door for an hour to get someone’s attention.
“Because nobody was near the jail cells at night, and nobody was monitoring the video feed from the jail cells, it took that long for a staff member to realize that Mr. Fuller was trying to get someone’s attention,” the complaint states.
The employee, annoyed with Fuller for making so much noise, zapped his dinner in a microwave and left it sitting for an hour before giving the cold meal to Fuller, according to the 69-page lawsuit.
On Fuller’s third day in the jail, he says, the staff offered him a deal: Clean their offices and he could get out early.
“Fuller felt angry that he was being pressured to do cleaning for the police department, after having been in jail for three days, just because he didn’t have the money to pay his fines. But he did the cleaning anyway because it was his fastest way out,” he says in the complaint.
George West, 57, and Robert Jones, 24, also were issued traffic tickets by Santa Fe police and fear they will be jailed because they can’t afford them and have outstanding warrants. Judge Getty has also fined them for failure to pay. West owes the city $1,500; Jones owes it $850, according to the lawsuit.
The ACLU seeks class certification and special damages for lost wages, child care, vehicle impoundment costs and other fees arising from the city’s alleged unconstitutional practice of jailing debtors.
They claim the defendants violates their rights to due process; Sixth Amendment right to counsel; the Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment (inadequate food); and equal protection, for jailing people for failing to pay a fine.
Their ACLU attorney Trisha Trigilio said in a statement: “The municipality uses its law enforcement power to extort payments from its own residents and punish them for their poverty. We are confident that our efforts in this litigation will put an end to Santa Fe’s unconstitutional practices.”
Santa Fe city attorney Ellis Ortego did not respond to a request for comment.
The ACLU of Arkansas filed a similar federal class action in August for four residents of Sherwood, Ark., against the city and a state judge, accusing them of jailing poor people who owe court fines and fees stemming from misdemeanor “hot check” convictions with no regard for their ability to pay.
Also in August, 13 cities in St. Louis County were sued for jailing people who are too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets and petty misdemeanors. Many of those lawsuits, against cities near Ferguson, Mo., also alleged racial discrimination, an element missing from the recent Texas case.
Other debtors’ prison lawsuits have been filed in Georgia; New Orleans; San Francisco; Benton County, Wash.; Alexander City, Ala.; and Douglas County, (Omaha) Neb.
All these lawsuits were filed after the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white Ferguson, Mo. police officer in August 2014, which led to months of protests that cities were using their court systems and police to fleece poor people, many of them black, with petty fines.