ACLU Gon' Sue Fuck Out Of Lexington, South Carolina, Debtors' Prisons
Image Credit: The Daily Blog
In today's episode of FUCK THE POORS, Lexington, South Carolina, finds itself sued by the ACLU for running debtors prisons. HOORAY! Because the Bible Belt would rather return to a Dickensian Hellscape than collect taxes. Quick, someone go tell them that Jonathan Swift was kidding before the legislature starts debating it!
The lead plaintiff in Brown v. Lexington County, Twanda Brown, was a single mother, working at Burger King, supporting five children with the help of Medicaid and Section 8 housing assistance. In March 2016 she received a ticket for driving without a license, her second offense. When Brown appeared in court the next month, the magistrate never told her she was legally entitled to request a public defender.
Without being informed of her rights and without the assistance of counsel, Ms. Brown pled guilty to the charges of DUS, 2nd offense and driving with no tag light. Judge Adams sentenced Ms. Brown to $237.50 in fines and fees for the driving with no tag light offense. She also sentenced Ms. Brown to $2,100 in fines and fees for the DUS, 2nd offense, even though the maximum penalty under South Carolina law is $600, 60 days of imprisonment, or both.
The Fourteenth Amendment bars jailing someone for failing to pay a fine without assessing her ability to pay. But not in Lexington, South Carolina!
Judge Adams asked Ms. Brown if she had any money to pay that day. When Ms. Brown responded that she did not, Judge Adams stated that Ms. Brown would be required to pay $100 each month toward her fines and fees. Ms. Brown was scared. She knew that she could not afford to pay $100 each month to the court and still support her family. Ms. Brown told Judge Adams that she could afford to pay only $50 a month. Judge Adams replied that a $50 monthly payment was not enough. Ms. Brown recalls that Judge Adams said, “I don’t care what happens. Your payment is going to be on the 12th. I want my money on the 12th." Ms. Brown tried to explain her financial responsibilities related to her children. Judge Adams replied, “I don’t care if you have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 kids.” Judge Adams threatened to jail Ms. Brown for 90 days if she did not make a $100 payment each month to the Irmo Magistrate Court.
PLUS, the county charges a 3% collection fee if the defendant doesn't pay in full the day of the trial. So, Ms. Brown was on the hook for $2,407.63 for a busted tail light and suspended license.
When Ms. Brown fell behind on payments, Judge Adams issued a bench warrant for her arrest, ordering her to pay $1,907 immediately or serve 90 days in jail. South Carolina law clearly states bench warrants are only to be used to get a defendant into court to answer charges, NOT to round people up and incarcerate them. But not in Lexington!
Brown was arrested in February and served 57 days in jail. For a suspended license and a busted tail light.
Even the Bulldog is like, WTF?!?!?!?
Here's the ACLU's roundup of all the ways South Carolina's system is completely fucking unconstitutional.
The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits the incarceration of a person for nonpayment of court fines, fees, costs, assessments, or restitution without first holding a court hearing on the individual’s ability to pay and the adequacy of readily available alternatives to incarceration and making a finding that nonpayment was willful.
The Sixth Amendment requires affording indigent defendants the assistance of court-appointed counsel when sanctioned with actual incarceration for nonpayment of a court-ordered legal financial obligation, when facing a sentence of incarceration suspended upon the payment of fines and fees, and when the incarceration term of a suspended incarceration sentence is enforced.
The Sixth Amendment also prohibits systemic deficiencies in the funding, staffing, and assignment of cases to public defenders that result in the denial of the right to counsel to indigent defendants.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits arresting people based on warrants that are unsupported by probable cause of a criminal offense or probation violation, as is the case when a warrant is based solely on a report that the defendant has failed to pay a court-ordered legal financial obligation.
But not in Lexington, South Carolina!
In Lexington, the County Council relies heavily on fines collected for low-level offenses.
Together, the Central Traffic Court and district magistrate courts collected $1,420,154 in revenue from traffic and criminal fines for the County General Fund in fiscal year 2015-2016. Of that amount, the Central Traffic Court alone generated over $1 million and the Irmo Magistrate Court [aka Judge Adams] generated more than $122,000.
And that doesn't take into account all the people who "paid their debt to society" by spending weeks in jail to wipe out a few hundred dollars of fines.
Lexington County is also frugal when it comes to public defenders, budgeting less than half of what comparably sized counties spend to defend poor people.
According to U.S. Census estimates, Lexington County had a population of 273,843 in 2015, while York County had a slightly smaller population of 240,076 and Spartanburg County had a slightly larger population of 291,240. Lexington County provided only $514,306 for public defender services in fiscal year 2015-2016, whereas both York County and Spartanburg County provided more than double that amount for the same time period: York County allocated $1,369,721 and Spartanburg County allocated $1,116,169.
But that's okay, since courts in Lexington don't bother telling defendants that they're entitled to an attorney anyway. Why fund 'em if they aren't gonna get used, right? Sure, South Carolina law says that indigent defendants are entitled to an attorney if they're facing jail time. But not in Lexington!
Godspeed, ACLU! Because you know Jeff Sessions' Justice Department is too busy worrying about where kids pee to bother with systemic violations of poor people's civil rights!
Wonkette is always here to provide you with that adrenaline shot of rage to put a little pep in your step after lunch! Don't forget to tip your server!
Liz Dye lives in Baltimore with her wonderful husband and a houseful of teenagers. When she isn't being mad about a thing on the internet, she's hiding in plain sight in the carpool line. She's the one wearing yoga pants glaring at her phone.