University of Michigan Law School
Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse
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Case Name Gonzales v. City of Austin CJ-TX-0012
Docket / Court 1:15-cv-00956 ( W.D. Tex. )
State/Territory Texas
Case Type(s) Criminal Justice (Other)
Special Collection Criminalization of poverty
Case Summary
The Plaintiff, a thirty-five-year-old single mother with seven children, filed this class-action complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Texas (Austin Division) on October 27, 2015. The Plaintiff, represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project and the University of Texas School ... read more >
The Plaintiff, a thirty-five-year-old single mother with seven children, filed this class-action complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Texas (Austin Division) on October 27, 2015. The Plaintiff, represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project and the University of Texas School of Law Civil Rights Clinic, sued the City of Austin under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The Plaintiff claimed that the City had a practice of jailing people who are too poor to pay their fines for traffic tickets and other petty misdemeanors in violation of their constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and counsel under the Fourteenth and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The Plaintiff herself was indigent. Her annual income as a childcare aid at an elementary school was less than $6,000 and she received food stamps, free school lunches for her children, and Section 8 housing assistance. She could not afford expenses like car insurance or auto-inspections, and thus, when she started receiving traffic tickets for driving without an inspection or insurance, she was not able to pay off the fines. In December 2010, the Plaintiff was arrested and incarcerated in a local jail. Her sentencing judge did not inquire into her ability to pay for the fines or appoint counsel to represent her. Because of her incarceration, she lost her job. The Plaintiff was again arrested and incarcerated in 2013 for driving without a valid license and insurance, and for driving with expired registration. She subsequently received two more traffic tickets after her release. At the time she filed this complaint, the Plaintiff’s two traffic tickets were still outstanding.

Along with the initial complaint, the Plaintiff filed a motion for class certification. The City filed a motion to dismiss on November 17, 2015, but on December 8 the Plaintiff filed an amended complaint. On December 28, the Court dismissed the Plaintiff’s pending motion for class certification as well as the City’s Motion to dismiss in light of the amended complaint. The City filed a new motion re-urging the court to dismiss the amended complaint and on January 11, 2016, the Plaintiff filed a new motion for class certification. On January 19, 2016, a stipulation was entered between the parties agreeing that the Court need not determine the Plaintiff’s motion for class certification at the time, and that any determination made would be after the completion of discovery.

On March 15, 2016, District Judge Sam Sparks approved the City’s motion re-urging a motion to dismiss and dismissed the case without prejudice. The court agreed with the City’s argument that even if the Plaintiff’s allegations were taken as true (that Austin municipal judges failed in practice to appoint counsel and conduct indigency hearings), the judges were still performing their judicial functions, and those actions cannot constitute municipal policy. The rules governing a municipal judge’s response to an individuals’ inability to pay a fine and his/her ability to issue a warrant if the fine is not paid leaves discretion to the judge and does not mandate any particular action.

The case is now closed.

Robert Carnes - 10/21/2017

compress summary

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Issues and Causes of Action
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Constitutional Clause
Assistance of counsel (6th Amendment)
Due Process
Equal Protection
Access to lawyers or judicial system
Over/Unlawful Detention
Placement in detention facilities
Plaintiff Type
Non-profit NON-religious organization
Private Plaintiff
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Defendant(s) City of Austin
Plaintiff Description An indigent thirty-five-year-old single mother with seven children who was incarcerated on multiple occasions for failing to pay her traffic tickets.
Class action status sought Yes
Class action status granted Moot
Prevailing Party Defendant
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief None
Source of Relief None
Case Closing Year 2016
Case Ongoing Yes
Additional Resources
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  Philadelphia Forfeiture
Date: Aug. 11, 2014
By: Institute for Justice (Institute for Justice)
[ Detail ]

1:15-cv-00956-SS (W.D. Tex.)
CJ-TX-0012-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/04/2016
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Class Action Complaint [ECF# 1]
CJ-TX-0012-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 10/27/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
First Amended Complaint [ECF# 15]
CJ-TX-0012-0002.pdf | Detail
Date: 12/08/2015
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 33] (W.D. Tex.)
CJ-TX-0012-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 03/16/2016
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Judges Sparks, Sam (W.D. Tex.)
CJ-TX-0012-0003 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Bernhardt, Rebecca (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Coleman, Brian A (District of Columbia)
CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Grinstein, Joseph S. (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Manne, Neal S. (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Natarajan, Ranjana (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Nelson, Justin (Texas)
Orr, Lindsay B (Delaware)
CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Pringle, Susanne Ashley (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Trigilio, Trisha (Texas)
CJ-TX-0012-0001 | CJ-TX-0012-0002 | CJ-TX-0012-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Edwards, Christine G. (Texas)
Harris, Robin E (Texas)

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