McALLEN, Texas (CN) – Hidalgo County violates the constitutional rights of truant teenagers by jailing them for their inability to pay fines from missing school, a class action claims in Federal Court. “Since January 2009, approximately 150 teens served time in Hidalgo County jail that may be attributed to unpaid fines for failure to attend school or other school-related misdemeanor offenses that are not supposed to be punishable by jail time,” the lawsuit states.
The policy purportedly applies to teens aged 17 and older, but the class claims many teens are ticketed “long before they turn 17, the age when adult criminal responsibility attaches in Texas.”
Lead plaintiffs Francisco De Luna and Elizabeth Luna, both 18, say they spent 18 days in the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Facility for truancy tickets they received when they were only 13 and 14 years old.
Hidalgo County’s sheriff and its magistrates create a “school-to-prison pipeline” by routing truant students through the juvenile justice system, a “significant predictor of involvement with the adult criminal justice system,” the class claims.
“Rather than increasing the likelihood that such students will complete school and graduate, excessive ticketing for failure to attend school, and aggressive enforcement of such tickets by courts, often drives students to drop out,” the class says.
“Texas law permits and encourages the assessment of multiple fines of up to $500 per ticket against students for failure to attend school,” the students add. “[B]etween 2005 and 2009, the number of truancy or failure to attend school charges filed by Texas schools increased 40 percent, from about 85,000 to 12,000.
“Excessive ticketing for school-related conduct can quickly amount to thousands of dollars in fines and places an onerous burden on low-income families,” the lawsuit states.
The median per capita income in Hidalgo County is $9,899, and 45.1 percent of children ages 18 and under live in poverty, according to the complaint.
The county’s magistrates violate students’ due-process rights by not considering their inability to pay before sending them to jail, the class claims.
The magistrates also fail to offer indigent students the options of paying their fines in installments or discharging their debt through community service, the class says.
Defendants include the county, Sheriff Guadalupe Trevino, and county magistrates and justices of the peace Mary Palacios, Gilberto Saenz, Jesus Morales, Bobby Contreras, Rosa Trevino, Luis Garza, Ismael Ochoa, Charlie Espinoza and “Speedy” Jackson.
The students demand an order halting truancy bookings and a declaration that the practice is illegal and unconstitutional.
They are represented by Lisa Graybill of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas.