Joseph Anderson, a disabled man with an income less than $9,500 a year, spent eight nights in jail over an unpaid speeding ticket plus court costs a few years ago in Biloxi.
He owed $220, including a fine of $170. Because he couldn't pay it in full, he faced a larger debt including the cost of a year's probation at $40 to $50 per month. When he couldn't keep up, he went to jail.
Anderson is one of several people represented in a class-action lawsuit that accuses Biloxi of running a modern-day debtors prison. The complaint is one of at least four court-related federal lawsuits filed in Mississippi this year. The lawsuits also have challenged Moss Point, city of Jackson and Scott County on issues such as a person's ability to pay, a fixed-sum bail system and constitutional rights including the right to legal representation, due process and equal protection under the law.
Anderson, 52, was well below the federal poverty guideline of $11,170 a year for a household of one in 2012 when he was ordered to pay $90 a month on fines plus a probation fee, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
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He had survived four heart attacks and a stroke in 2011, a year before his speeding ticket. He fell behind in his payments and a city court judge issued a warrant for his arrest. He was jailed Dec. 27, 2012, and was told he could be released on a cash bond of $220, the lawsuit says.
"I felt bad because I didn't have anyone to call who could lend or give me the money," he later told lawyers. "I get my Social Security check and pay my bills, and what I have left of that I try to buy gas. It's hard making ends meet."
After a week in jail, a city court judge gave him credit for time served. Anderson was freed the next day.
The city paid the county jail $25 a day for his stay.
A lawsuit represents one side of a complaint.
The suit against Biloxi also alleges the city has schemed to generate revenue at the expense of the impoverished, disabled and homeless.
The complaint says Biloxi's court issued 2,681 arrest warrants from September 2014 through June 11, including 1,520 for failing to pay fines. At least 415 people, or 27 percent, were jailed for failure to pay during seven of those months.
The court generated $1.27 million in revenue in 2013, according to the ACLU.
The city's portion of general-fund revenue from fines and forfeitures has increased 26 percent since 2008, the suit says, while the number of residents living below the poverty level more than doubled from 2009 to 2013.
Defendants are the city, its police chief and judge, and a private probation service.
Similar lawsuits have been filed nationwide since March. That's when the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report against unconstitutional police and city court practices in Ferguson, Mo. The report followed an investigation of the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer and Ferguson's police and court practices.
The Justice Department's review of Ferguson Municipal Court concluded the city's focus on revenue, rather than public safety, results in court practices that violate 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection. It also said court practices exacerbate the harm of unconstitutional police practices; hurt the city's most vulnerable residents; and breed antagonism and distrust.
Debtors prisons were a common practice in medieval Europe to hold people and sometimes their families while they worked off their debts. The practice was later called "the poor house" or "the poor farm."
Debtors prisons were common in America's infancy until a federal law abolished the practice in 1883.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 ruled it's unconstitutional to send people to jail because they can't pay court fines. Other rulings and federal decrees say inability to pay isn't the same as unwillingness to pay.
In a class-action suit settled in September against Clanton, Ala., a federal judge said using a fixed-sum bail system without a hearing on a person's indigence violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The Justice Department filed a statement in the case that said, "The court should find this system to be unconstitutional. Not only are such schemes offensive to equal protection principles, they also constitute bad policy."
Chief U.S. District Judge Louis Guirola Jr. has placed a hold on the Biloxi lawsuit pending settlement negotiations. All parties are to submit a joint status report Jan. 15.
Biloxi spokesman Vincent Creel said the city's legal counsel "is involved in good-faith discussions with the ACLU. We want to be fair to everyone."
He said the city implemented a community service program and legal counsel for defendants in 2005.
"We believe the lawsuit is a good thing and good will come from it," he said.
The lawsuit says Biloxi should have known better than to violate people's rights, considering its neighboring city, Gulfport, was sued over a debtors prison complaint 10 years ago.
The Southern Center for Human Rights sued Gulfport in 2005, alleging it ran a debtors prison and had a task force to round up people in predominantly black neighborhoods who owed on misdemeanors fines. It alleged defendants had no legal counsel and it claimed court files were in disarray, resulting in some defendants receiving several jail terms for the same offense.
The SCHR dropped the lawsuit in 2007 after settlement discussions.
The city bought a new court filing system, though John Kelly, chief administrative officer, said the purchase was unrelated to the lawsuit. The system has made the court operate more efficiently, he said, and will preserve court records. Much of the court's paperwork was damaged or covered with mold after Hurricane Katrina.
Kelly said most changes after the lawsuit were about basic business operations.
"It is real difficult finding a balance that is holding people responsible and at the same time not violating people's rights," he said. "Nobody wants their rights violated, but at the same time, people must be held accountable for their actions."
After the lawsuit, the city instituted a community service program, tweaked payment methods and increased its public defenders budget. The court has two part-time public defenders.
"We inquire into the financial ability of the defendants both at the time they enter into their plea and during the collection review process for those who are trying to pay their obligations over time," city prosecutor Richard Smith said. "At any time that it becomes obvious that the defendant cannot meet the financial obligation or that it is becoming an overwhelming burden, we offer the defendant the opportunity to do community service."
He said community service is the city's main tool for those who can't afford fines. A community service coordinator helps line up work that fits defendants' schedules and transportation arrangements. They work at nonprofit organizations such as Feed My Sheep, the Humane Society of South Mississippi, Goodwill and the city's parks and recreation department.
Smith said most people arrested on misdemeanors are released on their own recognizance. Only those with the most severe of offenses are jailed. State law, for instance, requires jail pending a hearing on a domestic violence charge. A judge is on call to discuss bond or holds on a violent charge, he said.
Gulfport has a policy of bringing those jailed before a judge within 48 hours, either in city court or at the jail.
"We spend a great amount of time making sure people do not sit in jail," Smith said. Clerks constantly review the jail docket to make sure those who get a bond are released from jail quickly, he said, and those who can't make bond are brought back before a judge. He said the judge will either lower the bond or give the person pretrial release.
"My office's position is that Municipal Court is a quality-of-life court," Smith said. "We try to motivate compliance with our statutes and ordinance, not exact retribution against those who have made a mistake, or try and make money off of those mistakes. We only make jail recommendations when we have exhausted all other means of rehabilitation and compliance."
More lawsuits expected
Civil liberties and social justice groups say more lawsuits are likely.
"The lawsuits are part of a nationwide movement questioning how poor citizens are treated in our criminal justice system," said Cliff Johnson, an assistant professor of law and director of the MacArthur Justice Center at Ole Miss. The Justice Center was involved in the Moss Point lawsuit and in lawsuits against city of Jackson and Scott County.
"Our hope is that judges, prosecutors and politicians will take note of this movement and implement changes before such suits are filed," Johnson said. "My expectation, however, is that additional litigation will be necessary in order to bring about the changes we seek -- changes the Constitution demands."
Paying for courts
Shari Veazey, executive director of the Mississippi Municipal League, said it costs more to operate a municipal court than a city collects in fines. Collections are a "huge" issue for most cities, and even small towns with fewer than 1,500 residents are owed millions in fines, she said.
A survey a few years ago, she said, showed only 6 percent of cities' revenues came from court fines.
Veazey said portions of fines can include assessments owed to the state.
"A speeding fine, for example, may be $100 -- the city's to keep if it is collected," Veazey said. "But state-mandated assessments may add an additional $125 to the fine that must be sent to the state of Mississippi.
"The bottom line is that the municipal court system is not a profit center for any city. Cities work hard to collect fines to help cover the costs of operating their municipal court system."