COLUMBIA, S.C. (CN) – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal class-action lawsuit claiming a South Carolina county operates a debtors’ prison by jailing people for being unable to pay court fines and letting them linger for weeks before a court hearing.
According to the complaint filed Thursday by the ACLU and Terrell Marshall Law Group, victims of the system in Lexington County are illegally arrested on warrants issued when they are unable to pay fines for traffic and other minor infractions.
They are not informed of their right to waive the fee for a public defender, the ACLU says, and are incarcerated for weeks or even months without seeing a judge or having court hearings.
“Lexington County is home to a modern-day debtors’ prison,” the lawsuit states. “Each year, hundreds, if not more than one thousand, of the poorest residents of the county and its surrounding areas are deprived of their liberty in the Lexington County Detention Center for weeks and even months at a time for no reason other than their poverty and in violation of their most basic constitutional rights.”
Lead plaintiff Twanda Brown, a single mother of four who worked at Burger King and lives in Section 8 housing, fell behind on payments for a traffic ticket and was arrested. She says she languished in jail for almost two months.
“It was devastating for me and my kids,” she said.
Co-plaintiffs Cayeshia Johnson and Xavier Goodwin endured similar experiences, according to the complaint.
Johnson was allegedly jailed for 55 days for being unable to pay $1,287 in court fines and Goodwin says he was incarcerated for 63 days for owing $1,710 in traffic tickets. Goodwin fears he will be arrested again because he cannot afford to pay fines that he still owes the magistrate court.
“Plaintiffs’ arrests and incarcerations were not isolated incidents. Lexington County relies on the collection of fines and fees imposed on defendants in traffic and criminal cases in the county’s magistrate courts as a critical source of general fund revenue,” the complaint states. “Over time, the generation of county revenue through magistrate court fines and fees has given rise to a system that routinely deprives indigent people of their rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
Nusrat Choudhury, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, said in a statement that Lexington County has “some of the longest jail terms we’ve seen across the country.”
“People who can afford to pay buy their freedom, while poor people are imprisoned, causing their families to suffer, their jobs disappear, and their chances of escaping poverty to become even more remote,” Choudhury said.
According to the complaint, bench warrants are issued against more than 1,000 people in Lexington County each year for nonpayment of fines and fees imposed by the county’s magistrate court, putting them at risk for arrest and incarceration.
Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, said that despite a rising poverty rate in the county, “officials still use the poorest of the poor as a source of revenue.”
“People of color in Lexington County suffer disproportionately when the courts use debtors’ prison practices and ignore individuals’ financial realities,” Dunn said in a statement.
The ACLU notes that, more than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that jailing people for being unable to pay court fines violates the 14th Amendment. It held that judges cannot jail people for failure to pay without first considering their ability to pay, efforts to get money, and alternatives to incarceration.
“Around the country, courts are recognizing the injustices inherent in debtors’ prison practices and undergoing reforms. Official in Lexington County should do the same,” said Toby Marshall, a founding member of Terrell Marshall Law Group.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the Fourth, Sixth and 14th Amendments. The plaintiffs seek compensatory damages for “deprivation of liberty, mental anguish, emotional distress, hunger, sleeplessness, disturbed sleep, illness, and loss of income.”
The Lexington County Magistrate Court did not immediately respond Friday to a phone call requesting comment.