ACLU sues Biloxi Over 'Unconstitutional' Jailings for Unpaid Fines

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Three people sued the city of Biloxi on Wednesday, saying police unconstitutionally jailed them for their inability to pay court fines.

Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the federal lawsuit is the latest in a series nationwide to claim that authorities are ignoring constitutional protections against imprisoning poor people for unpaid fines. A similar suit was filed last week alleging illegal detentions in Jackson.

"These two cases are really part of what it a nationwide scourge of debtors' prisons," said Nusrat Choudhury, a lawyer for the ACLU.

The suit is also another in a series of attacks against Judicial Correction Services, which until last year was Biloxi's for-profit probation service. Although Judicial Correction Services stopped doing business in Biloxi last year, the suit alleges that a debt collection agency and a new private probation company — Court Programs Inc. — continue to threaten debtors with jail.

Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said Wednesday that the city had yet to receive the lawsuit.

"However, based on media inquiries, we believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi, and we look forward to explaining it to the ACLU," Creel said in a statement. "The city of Biloxi treats all defendants fairly under the law. In fact, the court has used community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines."

Filed in federal court in Gulfport, the suit alleges that Biloxi jailed 415 people from September 2014 through March 26 of this year for failure to pay fines without offering them a lawyer or trying to determine if they had enough money to pay. The ACLU says Biloxi should have known better in part because neighboring Gulfport was sued on similar charges a decade ago.

The plaintiffs want Biloxi to be barred from those practices and also pay them damages for time they spent in jail.

The suit alleges police arrest drivers, passengers, pedestrians or people at home, taking them to the Harrison County jail immediately.

"When indigent debtors are finally brought to court for in-jail hearings, they lack representation by counsel and their unlawful incarceration is often further extended by judges, who fail to consider ability to pay, effort to secure resources and alternatives to incarceration," the suit says.

The suit says the policy "has instilled fear and panic" among poor people who "feel pressured to divert funds for basic necessities — food, medication, utilities and transportation — to avoid jail and the devastating impact of incarceration on their families, loved ones, jobs and housing."

The plaintiffs include Richard Tillery, a homeless man who was jailed for more than 30 days last year, and a boyfriend and girlfriend, Qumotria Kennedy and Joseph Anderson.

Anderson was arrested at his home just after Christmas in 2012 and jailed for seven nights over $220 that the city said he owed. The judge sentenced him to time served. Kennedy was jailed in July when she was a passenger in a car pulled over for running a stop sign because she owed unpaid traffic fines. After being jailed for five days and losing her part-time job cleaning baseball fields, she was released and ordered to pay $255 a month. She still owes at least $1,251, the suit says.

Online: ACLU complaint against Biloxi: http://bit.ly/1QTFCtc


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