GALVESTON, Texas (CN) — A Texas town is preying on the poor, arresting them for traffic tickets and locking them in a "debtors' prison" where they're fed Pop-Tarts, three men claim in a federal class action.
George West et al. claim the City of Santa Fe's manager, police chief, City Council and municipal judge held a meeting in the summer of 2015 where they mulled ways to cover a $650,000 budget hole.
"Shortly after the meeting about the budgetary shortfall, the municipal judge raised the fines for all tickets written by the Santa Fe Police Department," the complaint states.
With the jacked-up fines the municipal court increased its earnings for the city by $20,045 from the previous year, to $225,562, according the complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
Santa Fe, pop. 12,860, is 35 miles southeast of Houston. Its median household income of around $61,000 is $10,000 more than the state median, according to city-data.com.
Despite that, there's no shortage of working poor in the city who can't afford traffic tickets, which makes them targets of the municipal judge and police chief, the ACLU says.
Joining West as named plaintiffs are Robert Jones and Brady Fuller. They sued Santa Fe, its Municipal Judge Carlton Getty and Police Chief Jeffrey Powell on Nov. 3.
Fuller lives in Santa Fe with his wife and three daughters. His work at a shipyard provides an income that qualifies the family for food stamps. Fuller says a Santa Fe police officer pulled him over in a school zone in 2015, though he was not speeding, and wrote him a ticket for an expired vehicle inspection sticker.
"As opposed to other people, who could write a check to resolve their cases, Mr. Fuller could not afford to pay his fine outright," the complaint states.
Fuller says Judge Getty put him on a payment plan, without asking if he could make the payments or advising him of his right to an attorney, and a court clerk warned him that if he didn't pay, a warrant would issue and he would be arrested.
"Neither the municipal judge nor the clerk advised Mr. Fuller that, by signing the papers for a payment plan, he was pleading to criminal charges. Mr. Fuller felt that he had no alternative to signing the papers," the complaint states. "He circled 'no contest,' but no one explained what that meant. The judge sentenced Mr. Fuller to a fine."
Fuller says he missed his payments and the court issued a "capias pro fine warrant" in the judge's name for his arrest. Six months later, Fuller was pulled over driving his employer's new work truck by a Texas state trooper who said he couldn't read the truck's temporary tags.
"The trooper ran Mr. Fuller's license and contacted the Santa Fe marshal about his capias pro fine warrant. The trooper handcuffed Mr. Fuller, and the marshal picked him up and took him to jail," the complaint states.
It's against the law in Texas to jail people picked up on these warrants for more than one night, the ACLU says.