The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] reached a settlement [agreement, PDF] with the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, on Tuesday in a lawsuit alleging that the detention of defendants unable to pay fines for misdemeanor charges exhibited deliberate indifference to their constitutional rights. The settlement requires Biloxi to provide a public defender for people with qualifying circumstances like being unable to comply with a court-ordered fine. The lawsuit was initially filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi [official website] in October on constitutional grounds claiming that the city violated the rights of indigent people to counsel, to be free from unreasonable seizures, and to an indigency hearing. The ACLU said [press release] the settlement also requires the city to provide a “bench card” explaining court procedures, and prohibits the charge of additional fees for people with payment plans for fees and fines.
The federal class action lawsuit [JURIST report] was brought against not only the city of Biloxi, but the Biloxi Police Chief, a Municipal Court Judge and Judicial Correction Services, Inc. for allegedly arresting and jailing poor people illegally in debtors’ prisons. The plaintiffs were arrested [press release] for failing to pay traffic fines, held in jail for up to seven days without a hearing, and were not informed of their right to counsel. Although the US Supreme Court [official website] outlawed the practice of incarcerating people for court-imposed debts over 30 years ago, many local and state governments are still accused of jailing poor people in debtors’ prisons. Earlier this week the US Department of Justice [official website] urged state court systems to stop using procedural routines and hefty fines to profit off poor defendants [JURIST report].