The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is suing the city of Biloxi for running a “modern-day debtor’s prison.”
The group says officials illegally jail poor city residents who owe fees for minor offenses such as traffic tickets. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in federal court.
The lawsuit alleges that the city routinely issues arrest warrants to collect unpaid fees and fines and jails poor city residents “in a scheme to generate municipal revenue.”
If a resident can’t pay the full amount in cash they are left in jail until they can go in front of a judge, a process that can take days.
“This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest, particularly people of color, more harshly than those with means in flagrant violation of the Constitution,” said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.
Choudhury says Biloxi residents who owed the city money for criminal misdemeanors or minor offenses, were jailed without a proper hearing to assess their ability to pay and without being told they had the right to consult an attorney.
“Plaintiffs were arrested and jailed based on warrants that were sought, issued, and served without probable cause and with knowledge that the Plaintiffs’ non-payment was due to their poverty,” the suit claims.
Also named in the lawsuit is Biloxi police chief John Miller, Judge James Steele, a municipal court judge, and Judicial Corrections Services, a private probation company.
Vincent Creel, public affairs manager for the city, said they had not yet received the lawsuit. “However, based on media inquiries,” Creel added, “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.”