Thursday, April 02, 2009

Not an Isolated Incident

The title of this post should scare the hell out of everyone after they read this story in its entirety. Then, it should piss you off so bad that you call the Mayor of Irondale and the members of the City Council express your displeasure.

I am posting the entire article because the URL at keeps not working/disappearing.

Irondale repeatedly jails indigent woman over 4 years for inability to pay traffic fine causing her to lose her job and have to move to a homeless shelter with her three young children.

Irondale has been repeatedly jailing an indigent woman since 2005 because she is unable to pay fines for traffic offenses a year earlier, according to a federal lawsuit filed on her behalf.

Her lawyer says 30-year-old Kim Williams did not have any hearings on the charges and for most of that time no attorney.

"It seems in this case a number of indigent people were being warehoused because they couldn't pay fines and court costs," said lawyer Stephen Wallace, who successfully argued a similar case against Birmingham.

Irondale's city attorney, Greg Morris, said Williams was released from the jail last Thursday. He did not comment on the charges in the suit. Morris was not a lawyer in the case, which took place in Irondale Municipal Court.

"We are still looking into this matter," Morris said. "We believe our policies and procedures are sound. We vigorously will defend our rights in court."

Wallace argues, as he did in the Birmingham case, that it is unconstitutional to jail someone for a debt unless the accused has a hearing, where a judge determines the person is willfully refusing to pay, Wallace said. The U.S. Constitution prohibits automatic imprisonment for failing to pay a debt, Wallace said.

"There's no such thing as a debtors' prison," he said.

Birmingham settled its similar case last year and agreed to create a program for defendants unable to pay fines. The Irondale case was filed in federal court last week.

Circuit Judge Tommy Nail last week ordered Williams freed from the Irondale Jail.

According to Nail's order, Williams pleaded guilty on three traffic offenses in April 2004. Her lawyer says Williams was driving with a revoked license, without insurance and with a license tag that had been moved from another car without registration.

She was fined about $1,000, Wallace said, and put on 18 months' probation. She made payments toward the fines, Wallace said, but could not pay the entire sum while working minimum-wage jobs.

Beginning in 2005, she was jailed at least three times, for two to three weeks each time, according to Nail's order. The charges apparently were related to her failure to pay off the fines, although there aren't adequate records to show the basis of the charges, Wallace said.

She lost her job because of a 2006 incarceration, the judge wrote, and has not worked since.

She has been living in at least two shelters since then, with her three children, ages 3 to 14, Nail wrote in the March 26 order.

According to Nail's order, records do show that at least once Irondale added to Williams' debt to the city by fining her for a probation violation. Wallace said Irondale records don't show what that violation was, although it appears to have been failure to pay the fine.

He said there is no record of Williams having any trouble in Irondale that was not related to the initial 2004 traffic stop.

Williams' probation expired in October 2006. Wallace said he does not believe Irondale has had jurisdiction over her since then.

Still, she was jailed again in 2007 with no lawyer, no hearing and no notice of what the violations were, he said.

Wallace was representing Williams when she was jailed last week, but he said she still was not given a hearing. He said he asked Irondale if she could perform community service in place of her fines, similar to a deal he struck with Mountain Brook on Williams' behalf for a similar violation. He said he was told Irondale had no such program.

So Wallace filed a request in circuit court to free her, involving Nail.

Nail's order states that last week's jailing resulted from a charge of contempt of court, although lawyers did not provide him with any records to explain or support that charge.

Wallace said many parts of the Williams case are blank or missing because Irondale kept few records. As a result, he said, it's impossible to know the basis for the charges or fines after Wallace said there are no records that Williams ever had a hearing or a lawyer before.

"We believe her situation is not unique," Wallace said.

Wallace said Williams was referred to him while she was staying at First Light, a women's shelter in downtown Birmingham. He said he was looking for a pro bono case, to do some legal charity work.

Not an isolated incident! Simply a microcosm of what happens all over Alabama in small town court rooms every day of the week. The smaller the town the more corrupt the court system. I've had a couple of personal experiences myself, but this is really, really extreme.

Here is what happened to me. Once in 1999, when I was about 8 months pregnant I appeared before Judge Kim Taylor here in Alexander City for an expired tag ticket. I had the money to pay the $95 fine in the form of a check from my mother, who lived in Clay County. The court refused to take the check because it was from out of town. So, they put me in jail until either cash or a local check could be brought in. At 8 months pregnant, and it was a very difficult pregnancy too, the municipal court Judge jailed me, even though I tried to pay my fine, for not having the right method of payment.

Then in 2000, right after the baby I was pregnant with in the above paragraph died from SIDS, I was jailed in Coosa County for inability to pay a fine for not having car insurance. It was very traumatic and had it not been for the angelic court clerk shelling out nearly $700 to bail me, a complete stranger, out of jail, I might still be in jail.

All who read this ought to take a day sometime and go sit in your local court room and observe the proceedings. I promise you will be appalled by what you see.

1 comment:

sixstring said...

You are absolutely right! These small municipal courts are mostly nothing more than kangarooo courts and routinely violate peoples' rights.
I have seen it in my own town. If you don't have the money to appeal, you're screwed! I have even seen the judge tell a defendant in one of these kangaroo trials that if the cop said he was guilty, he was guilty. He won on appeal.

And some of these towns pass ridiculous laws, such as the sagging pants law just passed in Bayou La Batre. Now, I'm no fan of the sagging pants fashion, but when we start criminalizing the way people dress we don't live in a free country. It's really sad.