Alabama City Said to Shake Down the Poor

     (CN) – An Alabama town has been maintaining a “modern-day debtors’ prison” that disrupts the lives of its citizens and violates their civil rights, a pair of residents claim in Federal Court.
     D’Angelo Foster and Amanda Underwood, residents of Alexander City, Alabama, filed a class action suit last week against the city, claiming the practice violates the U.S. Constitution and Alabama false imprisonment law.
     The plaintiffs, who are being represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, also named Alexander Police Chief Willie Robinson as a defendant in both his official and individual capacities.
     According to the complaint, the city has used “its police department to arrest and detain poor defendants who cannot pay fines and costs owed to the Municipal Court.”
     The fines are assessed the same day as the arrests, and the defendants in these bogus cases are forced to stay in jail until someone pays their fine for them. Those who can’t come up with the money are required to “sit out” their time at a rate of $20 a day, the complaint says.
     A fortunate few in the latter category are appointed as “trustees” of the jail can earn an additional $20 per day credit for performing jobs “such as laundry, repairs around the jail, cleaning offices, or washing police cars,” the complaint adds.
     Foster says he was jailed for not being able to pay a fine and costs totaling approximately $1,700, though he had brought $800 with him to court. He says as a result of his incarceration, he lost his job working for a local auto parts company.
     Underwood, who works at a fast food restaurant, was jailed twice for her inability to pay traffic tickets. After receiving a third ticket, she “fears being jailed once again because she does not believe she will have enough money to pay for this ticket.”
     The complaint says neither plaintiff was advised of their right to counsel or asked if they’d waived the right. The plaintiffs also claim that once arrested, they weren’t told how long they would be incarcerated.
     The complaint specifically alleges that defendants’ actions violated the plaintiffs’ Fourth, Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
     They seek compensatory and punitive damages on the constitutional claims and false arrest.
     They are represented by Samuel Brooke, Sara Zampierin and Valentina Restrepo of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama.

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