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Austin, Texas Targeted as a Debtors’ Prison

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) - Austin, Texas is the latest city to face a federal class action accusing it of reinstituting debtors' prisons by jailing people who are too poor to pay fines for traffic tickets and petty misdemeanors.

Such lawsuits have mushroomed in the past year, in the aftermath of the protests of the white-on-black police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson and several neighboring cities were accused of targeting black drivers for traffic stops, and jailing them, and "debtors' prisons" lawsuits have sprouted all over the United States. They typically challenge the constitutionality of a local jurisdiction's practice of jailing people who cannot afford to pay fines for petty offenses, and attribute it in part to racial discrimination.

Such lawsuits have been filed against Georgia; New Orleans; San Francisco ; Benton County, Wash.; Alexander City, Ala.; Douglas County, (Omaha) Neb.; and Jennings, Mo., a neighbor of Ferguson. Ferguson agreed to stop doing it after receiving a scorching report from the Department of Justice.

In the Austin lawsuit, lead plaintiffs Valerie Gonzales and Maria Salazar say Austin violated their rights to counsel, due process, and equal protection.

Debtors' prisons "create a racially skewed, two-tiered system of justice in which the poor receive harsher, longer punishments for committing the same crimes as the rich, simply because they are poor," according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken on such cases elsewhere.

Lead plaintiff Gonzales says the Austin Municipal Court jailed her in August because she failed to pay traffic tickets accumulated over nine years. Gonzales, who takes care of five disabled children, was unemployed when she was arrested and living near the federal poverty line.

Gonzales says she and her husband could not afford to pay the tickets because of their modest income and the costs of feeding and sheltering their family. She acknowledges she drove without a license, and received tickets for it, but says the reason she could not obtain a valid license was that she could not afford to pay her traffic tickets.

Once she was arrested at the scene of a car accident due to outstanding warrants for unpaid tickets.

"At the jail, the officers treated her as they would treat a dangerous mentally ill person because she was crying as a result of the car accident," the complaint states. "They handcuffed her, stripped her naked, forced her to wear a mask over her face, and locked her alone in an observation cell. After about thirty minutes, one guard concluded that this harsh treatment was unnecessary. Officers then allowed Ms. Gonzales to dress and took her to a hospital to be checked for injuries from the car accident. After Ms. Gonzales returned from the hospital, she waited more than twelve hours to see an Austin Municipal Court judge."

But the judge was not sympathetic, and told her she would go to jail if she could not pay $1,000 that day. The judge did not ask about her ability to pay or her ability to complete community service, and did not consider reducing the debts, the complaint states.


Nor, she says, did the court inquire about her ability to afford an attorney, take any steps to appoint one for her, or obtain a waiver of her right to counsel. She says she had no attorney when she entered pleas on her underlying traffic tickets.

Gonzales was in jail for two days before she was able to find pro bono attorneys, who said she was being unconstitutionally incarcerated and should be released. The court subsequently found Gonzales to be indigent and agreed to release her with credit for jail time and said she could work off the remaining debt by completing 395 hours of community service.

But Gonzales says she had just started a new job, could not afford to pay her court debt and that it would be a hardship for her to perform the community service. The court told her if she did not perform 18 hours of community service per month, a warrant would be issued for her arrest.

Plaintiff Salazar tells a similar story to that of Gonzales. Salazar, who is pregnant and the sole caretaker for six children, has no job and receives public assistance for housing, food stamps, and Medicaid. Her household income is near the federal poverty line.

Salazar says she received a multitude of tickets from Austin over an 11-year span. The tickets include six for speeding and eight for offenses resulting from poverty. Like Gonzales, Salazar repeatedly was ticketed for driving without a license and car insurance, and says she was unable to obtain a license or insurance unless she paid off all of her traffic tickets.

After police arrested her on outstanding warrants from her unpaid tickets, the municipal court judge ordered her to perform 336 hours of community service to satisfy the debt. She says that is difficult, due to her pregnancy and childcare responsibilities.

And, as in Gonzales's case, her judge did not ask about her ability to pay, her ability to complete community service, her ability to obtain counsel, nor did the judge appoint counsel or her or consider reducing her debts. She too says she had no attorney when she entered pleas on her traffic tickets, and that she never waived her right to counsel.

Salazar says she is at risk of being jailed again.

The women say the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution protect people who are prosecuted for petty crimes, including Class C misdemeanors.

"The Due Process Clause requires courts to hold an ability to pay hearing before jailing a poor person for failure to pay a criminal judgment debt. ... The court must inquire into the reason the person failed to pay and consider alternatives to jail, such as tailoring the debt to the person's resources," complaint states.

The women say the Austin Municipal Court has a policy of fines and fees that can cause the costs of a simple ticket to increase dramatically.

For instance, the court has a $25 per ticket fee when a person wants to set up a payment plan. So a person with three tickets would pay an extra $75 to gain more time to pay a debt that he or she is too poor to pay up front.

The court also imposes a $50 "capias pro fine" for an arrest warrant when a person misses a deadline to make payments or perform community service. The women say the court has a policy of demanding on-the-spot payments to clear such warrants.

The myriad fees and fines can cause a single traffic ticket for failure to signal a lane change to rise from $66 to more than $500, according to the complaint.

"Class C prosecutions in Austin Municipal Court trap people who are too poor to pay in an endless cycle of accumulating debt. The court burdens people who are too poor to pay with additional fees and logistical hurdles at every step of the process, then arrests people who cannot pay and denies them the procedural protections required by the Constitution. For people who are too poor to pay, the almost-inevitable result of this system is jail time," the complaint states.

The women say the Austin Municipal Court collects more than $30 million from more than 150,000 Class C misdemeanor cases each year. Many of the previous class actions claim that the cities use traffic tickets to fund their courts, and target black drivers to do it.

Data show that the Austin Municipal Court rarely waives debt in these cases. Between September 2011 and September 2015, the court waived debt just 11 times in more than 600,000 cases. During this time, it jailed more than 2,000 people.

Gonzales's and Salazar's attorney Rebecca Bernhardt said the Austin court has to make some changes.

"First, it needs to make fair and thorough determinations of individuals' ability to pay, based upon their income, expenses, and dependents.

"Second, the most important alternative to full payment of the fine is reducing and/or waiving the overdue balance of fines and fees for people too poor to pay.

"Third, it should make payment plans more accessible, by not charging a fee for payment plans, and by tailoring payment installments to ability to pay.

"Fourth, when assigning community service, the court must ensure that the community service order is appropriate for the person and that the person's economic circumstances that made fines impossible to pay do not also make community service impossible to perform.

"Finally, the court may also consider dramatically decreasing its use of arrest warrants and regularly rescheduling missed hearings when someone missing their initial appearance."

Bernhardt said the goal of the lawsuit is "to change the practices of the City of Austin Municipal Court, to ensure that it follows state and federal law and comports with the city's self-identified goals of inclusion and equity."

A spokeswoman for Austin said: "The city is familiar with and has reviewed the allegations in the lawsuit. We're prepared to defend the city and are confident that Municipal Court officials and staff are complying with all appropriate laws in this matter."

Gonzales and Salazar seek class certification, declaratory judgment, an injunction and attorney's fees.

Bernhardt is with the Texas Fair Defense Project. She is assisted by attorneys with the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic, in Austin, and attorneys with Susman Godfrey, in Houston.

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