'More specific' declaration against jailing indigents sought

Lawsuit accuses courts of running a ‘debtor’s prison’

By Kevin McGill
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Civil rights attorneys want a federal judge to send a clearer, stronger message to state judges in New Orleans: People facing jail for court debts must get a fair chance to show whether they are able to pay.

It's the latest wrinkle in an ongoing 2015 lawsuit that accused New Orleans courts of running what amounts to a "debtor's prison." That class-action lawsuit named six people who had been locked up for owing court debts and it said that over the years there had been thousands threatened with arrest for nonpayment of such debts.

One result of the suit was that, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance last August formally declared that "the judges' policy or practice of not inquiring into the ability to pay of such persons before they are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts is unconstitutional."

Although the judges have not appealed that finding, attorneys for the plaintiffs in the 2015 suit fear the message didn't sink in.

In a motion and supporting documents filed Monday, they cite the case of Sheri Bell, ordered arrested in January by state District Judge Laurie White for failing to make restitution payments for a theft. The documents say Bell had been summoned to White's courtroom without being told the purpose of the hearing and was therefore unprepared to prove she was indigent after telling White she couldn't afford to pay the owed money.

A state appeal court ordered Bell's release. But civil rights lawyers in the federal case want Vance to weigh in again. Their motion seeks another declaration, this one spelling out that the judges must make a "meaningful inquiry into the debtors ability to pay, preceded by notice of the importance of that issue and including an opportunity" for the debtor to be heard.

"We're basically asking the court to make very clear that these procedural requirements in the case - that we detail in the brief - that those are required, and that Orleans Parish judges are required to comply," Marco Lopez, an attorney for Civil Rights Corps, said in an interview.

The New Orleans judges had not filed a reply as of midday Friday, and their attorneys did not respond Friday to an emailed query.

Meanwhile, another aspect of Vance's ruling in the 2015 lawsuit is under appeal. Her declaration in August also said that in cases involving unpaid court fines and fees that go to the court's expense fund, the judges have an unconstitutional conflict of interest, and that there should be some kind of "neutral forum" to determine defendants' ability to pay in such cases.

The judges say in briefs to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that they are able to impartially determine ability to pay, that it is common practice in various courts for judges to assess fines and fees and determine whether a defendant is indigent, and that it is the decision of the state Legislature, and not of the judges, to use a portion of criminal fines and fees to fund the court's operations.

Published: Tue, Mar 05, 2019