ACLU lawsuit accuses Biloxi of running debtors prison

 Joseph Anderson, 53, stands in front of the Harrison County Adult Detention Center.
ACLU Joseph Anderson, 53, stands in front of the Harrison County Adult Detention Center. William Widmer

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday accusing Biloxi of illegally arresting and jailing residents for nonpayment of fines.

The 73-page complaint, Kennedy v. City of Biloxi, was filed in federal court in Gulfport and said people in Biloxi are being jailed without a hearing or an attorney, and being told they can stay out of jail only if they pay the court fine and fees in full and in cash.

ACLU charges: "Each year hundreds of poor residents of the city and surrounding areas are deprived of their liberty in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center for days to weeks at a time for no reason other than their poverty."

The 14th Amendment of the Constitution says a person can't be jailed for nonpayment of fines and court costs without a court hearing and legal counsel.

Biloxi was served with the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon and said in a statement. " we believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi and we look forward to explaining it to the ACLU. 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."

Defendants in the case are the city of Biloxi, Police Chief John Miller, Municipal Judge James Steele, who was promoted from prosecutor to judge a year ago, and Judicial Correction Services Inc., a company the court case says the city stopped using in 2014.

Other Biloxi municipal judges were not named, although the lawsuit says they also issued failure-to-pay warrants.

The plaintiffs are Qumotria Kennedy and Joseph Anderson. The lawsuit was brought as a class action and asks for a jury trial and payment of damages.

The lawsuit provides details on the arrests of three people in Biloxi:

n Kennedy, 36, was handcuffed and arrested during a traffic stop, and jailed for five nights for unpaid traffic fines, the lawsuit says. Police found a marijuana cigarette in her purse and charged her with misdemeanor marijuana possession

"She was not provided a court hearing on her ability to pay, informed of her right to request counsel or appointed counsel," the ACLU says. "Kennedy was afraid for her daughter, who did not know where she was. Kennedy was ultimately fired from her part-time cleaning job because she missed work while jailed for her fines."

n Anderson, who is disabled, was at home when police arrested him on a warrant charging him with failure to pay a traffic fine, according to the ACLU.

"He was jailed for seven nights before finally being brought before the Biloxi Municipal Court. During Anderson's eventual hearing, the judge failed to inform Anderson of his right to a court-appointed attorney as a person who is indigent," according to the lawsuit.

n Richard Tillery, 51, a homeless man who the lawsuit says has been ticketed and charged by Biloxi police with trespassing, public drunkenness, littering, loitering and at least 89 misdemeanor offenses since 2010. The suit alleges his failure to pay the associated fees has left him ensnared in a cycle of ticketing and imprisonment.

The ACLU recently filed similar lawsuits in Jackson and New Orleans and the lawsuit says Biloxi should have learned from a case 10 years ago in Gulfport.

In 2005, the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a federal lawsuit against Gulfport for running a debtors prison in the Harrison County Adult Detention Center. The lawsuit said policy reforms were adopted by Gulfport in response to the lawsuit, which led to voluntary dismissal of the suit.

"Because Biloxi is located next to Gulfport and uses the same jail, the city and Chief Miller were aware of the allegations against Gulfport and the subsequent policy reforms," the lawsuit says.

A lawsuit represents only one side of a case.