Sessions rescinds protection against excessive fining by local courts

Sessions rescinds protection against excessive fining by local courts

[JURIST] Over the course of the past week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions [official website] has revoked [DOJ press release] a total of 25 Obama-era Department of Justice (DOJ) guidelines. Among them was a 2016 guideline [text, PDF] that advised local courts to not hand down or enforce unnecessary and excessive fines on those without the means to pay them.

The 2016 guideline was initially put in place by Vanita Gupta [ACLU profile], the former head of the Civil Rights Division [official website] of the DOJ, roughly one year after the DOJ released a report [text, PDF] on its investigation into excessive fine enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri. The report found that:

The municipal court does not act as a neutral arbiter of the law or a check on unlawful police conduct. Instead, the court primarily uses its judicial authority as the means to compel the payment of fines and fees that advance the City’s financial interests. This has led to court practices that violate the Fourteenth Amendments due process and equal protection requirements.

The report additionally found that Ferguson courts issued a total of 9,000 warrants in 2013 alone for failure to pay excessive fees attached to minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, and housing code violations.

Since taking over the DOJ, Sessions has disapproved of using guideline protocols to drive policy. In a November memo [text, PDF], Sessions stated that:

the Department has in the past published guidance documents—or similar instruments of future effect by other names, such as letters to regulated entities—that effectively bind private parties without undergoing the rulemaking process. The Department will no longer engage in this practice. Effective immediately, Department components may not issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities . . .

Following the release of the November memo, the DOJ has been undergoing a “review and repeal” process to rescind any guidelines that run counter to this belief.