St. Louis Suburb Must Face Class-Action Claims of Debtors’ Prison

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A St. Louis suburb’s bid to dismiss allegations that it repeatedly jails low-income residents when they cannot pay traffic fines faltered Monday when a federal judge ruled that five former detainees can proceed with civil rights claims against the city.

In an 18-page ruling, U.S. Magistrate Judge Nannette Baker found that five former detainees at the city of Florissant’s jail pleaded sufficient facts to establish that their civil rights were violated, and that the city enacted a scheme that some have likened to a modern-day debtors’ prison.

Last year, five poor residents of Florissant, located in North St. Louis County, claimed that they were held in jail for offenses that arose from traffic tickets and other minor municipal code violations.  Lead plaintiff Thomas Baker said he had been jailed close to 15 times and had spent as many as three or four days in jail each time.

Even though most of the arrests were for minor traffic violations punishable by no more than a $300 fine, his complaint says Florissant assessed bonds of between $600 and $1,200 for his release.

The class of former detainees says that officials did not give them access to lawyers or ask whether they could pay the fines. In Baker’s case, he claims he never faced a judge while in custody. In each case, the city jailed the detainees only because they could not pay to secure their release, according to the October 2016 class action.

Civil rights law firm ArchCity Defenders represents the plaintiffs.

“The judge’s decision to deny Florissant’s motion to dismiss reaffirms the strength of our clients’ claims, and is consistent with favorable rulings in our lawsuits against municipalities in the region engaging in unlawful and predatory practices such as debtors’ prisons, cash bail, and inhumane jail conditions,” ArchCity Defenders’ spokeswoman Rebecca Gorley wrote in a prepared statement. “Though our clients, many of whom are poor and black, have experienced firsthand the systems we now challenge, the decision ensures that their voices will continue to be heard.”

King, Krehbiel & Hellmich attorney Blake Hill represents the city. He declined to comment on the court’s ruling.

In court documents, the men and women described appalling conditions in the Florissant City Jail. They said that jailers housed them in cold cells that smelled of excrement and they had observed walls smeared with blood and mucus. Jailers allegedly denied them blankets, clean water, adequate food, toothbrushes, and soap, and the plaintiffs say they were forced to wear the same dirty clothes for days.

Asserting violation of their due process and equal protection rights, the former detainees said Florissant had created a “modern debtors’ prison scheme” that has filled the city’s coffers with millions of dollars.

“It has devastated the poor in the city and surrounding area, trapping people for years in a cycle of increased fees, debt, extortion, and cruel jailings,” the complaint states. “Thousands of people like the plaintiffs take from their disability checks or sacrifice money that is desperately needed by their families for food, diapers, clothing, rent, and utilities to pay ever-increasing court fines, fees, costs, and surcharges arising from minor offenses. They are told by city officials that if they do not pay, they will be thrown in jail. The cycle repeats itself, month after month, for years.”

The city pushed for the court to throw out the lawsuit. It argued that the facts alleged in the complaint were insufficient because the plaintiffs challenged the actions of the city’s courts and judges and failed to identify a policy or custom established by the city.

Judge Baker rebuffed the city’s motion on Monday, finding that at this stage of proceedings that the former detainees have done enough to show that the city, not judges, were behind the alleged scheme.

“Indeed, plaintiffs’ amended complaint is awash with allegations that their alleged injuries resulted from the city’s own unconstitutional policies and the continuing and pervasive unconstitutional customs and practices of a wide range of city departments and employees, including police officers, jail staff and supervisors, and municipal judges, among others,” Baker wrote in her ruling.

The men and women who brought the case had also outlined facts to support their due process claims against the city, Baker wrote, noting that their complaint clearly alleges they were held for several times in cold conditions, without food or exercise.

“Plaintiffs also allege that on at least one occasion jail officials explicitly stated that they were keeping the jail uncomfortably cold in order to make prisoners so uncomfortable that they would want to pay up and leave,” the ruling states.

Comparing the city’s policies to those of a private debt collector, Baker found that the plaintiffs’ claims survived the city’s motion to dismiss.

“Plaintiffs have alleged that the fines and fees they owe are all civil in nature, yet, they have clearly been subjected to debt-collection efforts that would never be tolerated if utilized against a private civil judgment debtor whose creditor is not the government,” the judge wrote. “Consequently, the court finds that at this early stage of the proceedings, plaintiffs have adequately alleged an equal protection violation.”

Baker added, “The court finds that plaintiffs have adequately pleaded a reasonable likelihood of future harm, as they have stated that they still owe debts to the City and live with the constant fear that they will again be arrested and jailed because they cannot pay those debts.”

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