On January 29, 2015, a nineteen-year-old man from Decatur, Georgia, filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against DeKalb County and Judicial Correction Services, Inc. ("JCS"). The plaintiff, represented by attorneys from the ...
read more >
On January 29, 2015, a nineteen-year-old man from Decatur, Georgia, filed this lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against DeKalb County and Judicial Correction Services, Inc. ("JCS"). The plaintiff, represented by attorneys from the ACLU, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and private practice, asked the court for damages, claiming that the defendants violated his Fourteenth Amendment rights when they incarcerated him for five days in the county jail because he was unable to pay $838 in fines and fees stemming from a traffic ticket within thirty days of sentencing. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the defendants violated his rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses by revoking his probation and incarcerating him for failing to pay court-imposed fines without conducting a hearing to determine his ability to pay, the adequacy of his efforts to obtain the resources needed to pay, and any alternatives to incarceration. The plaintiff also alleged that the defendants failed during the probation revocation proceedings to inform him of his right to request court-appointed legal assistance and that they failed to provide such assistance when it became apparent that the plaintiff was indigent.
The plaintiff's traffic violation constituted the underlying offense in this case. On October 9, 2014, the plaintiff pled guilty to driving with a suspended license before the DeKalb County Recorder's Court. He was sentenced to an $810 fine. After the plaintiff said that he was unable to pay on that day, the judge ordered him to pay the fine and other court fees within thirty days and to serve twelve months of probation with JCS. The company eventually charged the plaintiff with violating his probation for failure to pay, and the plaintiff's probation was revoked and he was incarcerated after a brief hearing before the Recorder's Court. The plaintiff claimed that his jailing was a direct result of the county's "pay-only probation" policy. Under this policy, the plaintiff argued, the county imposes probation solely to earn revenue from indigent people who often cannot afford to pay the sentencing fines and fees stemming from their traffic offenses or county ordinance violations.
The parties announced that they reached a settlement agreement on March 18, 2015. Under the proposed settlement, the defendants will pay a lump sum of $70,000 for damages and attorneys' fees. The chief judge of the DeKalb County Recorder's Court also agreed to take measures to ensure that the court's judges and personnel respect the rights of people who cannot afford the probation fines and fees. For example, the court adopted "bench cards" listing general policies to assist judges in avoiding incarcerating indigent people who are unable to pay the fines. The cards specify the legal alternatives to jail and provide that judges must conduct an "economic ability-to-pay hearing" before sending a probationer to jail for failing to pay fines and fees. The cards also inform judges about the specific procedures for protecting people's right to counsel during probation revocation proceedings. In addition to providing bench cards for each judge, the Recorder's Court also agreed to conduct training sessions for court personnel to explain probationers' right to counsel and their right to an indigency hearing. Finally, the court revised its petition revocation forms in order to better inform probationers of their right to court-appointed counsel in revocation proceedings and their right to request a waiver of the $50 fee for such counsel if they cannot afford it.
The parties have yet to submit the settlement agreement for the district court's approval. Once the court approves the agreement, this summary will be revised accordingly.Brian Tengel - 03/29/2015