On July 26, 2010, two young adults in Hidalgo County filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas, asked the court for declaratory, injunctive and damage relief. The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants, the county and county magistrates and justices of the peace, had violated their constitutional rights by failing to conduct an indigency examination prior to their jailing for the failure to pay the fines associated with the failure to attend school citations that had been issued by their school district's police department. Specifically, the plaintiffs claimed that, by failing to conduct an indigency examination to determine whether the plaintiffs were indigent and whether they had made a good faith effort to pay their fines, the defendants had violated their right to due process and equal protection by jailing them for being unable to pay a fine.
On June 24, 2011 Judge Randy Crane granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief against the judicial defendants. The court found that §1983 does not allow for injunctive relief against judicial officers for acts or omissions taken within their official capacities unless "a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable." The court further dismissed the claims against the Sheriff in his official capacity because case law in the 5th circuit allows for "unnecessary parties" to be dismissed. The district court found that the official capacity claims against the Sheriff in reality were claims against the county. As such, the district court found that the Sheriff's presence in the lawsuit was unnecessary and dismissed the claims against him in his official capacity.
Judge Randy Crane denied, however, the defendants' motion to dismiss the claim for declaratory relief against the judicial defendants and the claims for injunctive, declaratory and damage relief against the county.
On October 18, 2011, the remaining defendants filled a motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs then filed a cross motion for summary judgment on November 10, 2011.
In an order issued on February 15 2012, Judge Randy Crane 1) denied class certification, 2) dismissed Plaintiffs' individual claims for declaratory and injunctive relief against the Magistrates and County for lack of standing, 3) granted summary judgment to the named plaintiffs' for their claim for damages against the county because it violated their federal due process and equal protection rights by failing to afford them an affirmative indigency determination before incarcerating them for their failure to pay fines and costs, 4) ruled that plaintiff De Luna was entitled to nominal damages of $1, and 5) ruled that plaintiff Diaz’s entitlement to compensatory damages could not be resolved on summary judgment.
To demonstrate standing to obtain an order declaring as unconstitutional and enjoining Defendants’ challenged practices, the plaintiffs had to show that they faced a “real and immediate” threat that, while indigent, they will again be charged with a Class C, fine-only offense and then arrested and incarcerated solely because they are unable to pay the fine, without being afforded an indigency screening. The court believed that there were simply too many contingencies for the threat to be "real and immediate."
In granting summary judgment on the plaintiff's claim for damages, the court focused on potential defendants who might not think to "speak up" during arraignment, saying that providing the opportunity to bring up indigency is merely a gesture of, but does not provide, due process. Plaintiff De Luna did not show "actual injury" so was only awarded $1 for the unconstitutional violation of due process rights. With the plaintiff Diaz, the court said that the question of whether she knew that she could avoid jail time by bringing up her inability to pay at arraignment still needed to be determined. If she voluntarily chose to serve jail time, there would be no actual injury and she would only recover nominal damages.
A hearing on the remainder of the motions did not take place as the parties filed a joint motion to dismiss (R41) on April 29, 2012, saying that the matter had been amicably resolved. The agreement was filed under seal. The court then approved the motion on April 30.Justin Benson - 10/26/2011
Dan Hofman - 03/20/2016