United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division
MYRON H. THOMPSON, District Judge.
"Providing equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike is an age-old problem. People have never ceased to hope and strive to move closer to that goal."
Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 16, (1956).
Plaintiffs Harriet Delores Cleveland and Martin Antwuan Watts bring these consolidated federal cases against defendants City of Montgomery and two of the City's municipal judges, claiming that they were thrown in jail for being too poor to pay parking tickets in violation of their rights to counsel, equal protection, and due process under the following federal and state laws: the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution; Article I, §§ 1, 6, and 22 of the Alabama Constitution; and the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. Subject-matter jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question), 1343(a)(3) (civil rights), and 1367 (supplemental). These cases are before this federal court on the parties' joint motion for entry of agreed settlement order. The motion will be granted.
Cleveland and Watts allege that they were unconstitutionally jailed because they were too poor to pay Montgomery city traffic-ticket fines and associated court costs. Although the facts remain disputed, to give background for the settlement the court briefly reviews them as alleged by Cleveland and Watts.
Cleveland alleges that, over a period of five years, she received a number of traffic tickets that she could not afford to pay. The first tickets were for a lack of car insurance. Over a two-year span, police set up roadblocks in her West Montgomery neighborhood, and she was ticketed each time she could not present proof of insurance. Because she could not afford to pay these tickets, the City of Montgomery suspended her license. Nevertheless, she continued driving to work and her child's school, and she eventually received additional tickets for driving without a license. She remained unable to pay the fines owed, and, in August 2013, her outstanding fines were converted into a term of imprisonment in the Montgomery Municipal Jail.
Similarly, Watts alleges that he was taken into custody to serve a 54-day sentence based solely on his inability to pay a traffic ticket when he appeared before the Montgomery Municipal Court regarding an unrelated misdemeanor charge. Although the court dismissed the misdemeanor, it learned that Watts had outstanding traffic fines. The court gave him two options: either pay or face jail time. After he stated that he could not afford to pay the outstanding fines, the court sentenced him to jail.
In August 2013, while still in custody in the Montgomery Municipal Jail, Cleveland and Watts each brought suit individually in state court. Following removal to this federal court, the cases were consolidated. Cleveland and Watts sought declaratory and injunctive relief. The City and the other defendants agreed to a stay of the municipal-court orders of incarceration and the collection of outstanding debts pending discovery in this matter.
During discovery, another federal case, Mitchell v. City of Montgomery, No. 2:14cv186-MHT, was filed. The facts in Mitchell are analogous, and the Mitchell plaintiffs raise substantially similar claims. The Mitchell court, however, entered a preliminary injunction. As part of the injunction, the City of Montgomery was ordered to submit a comprehensive set of proposed judicial procedures that it would implement for the collection of fines going forward. While Cleveland's and Watts's cases have been litigated separately from Mitchell, this court allowed Cleveland and Watts to participate in the briefing and proposed hearing regarding the proposed judicial procedures.
All parties then decided to engage in private mediation to develop agreed-upon procedures that would facially satisfy federal and state-law requirements. The parties now contend that the resulting proposed procedures establish a scheme whereby indigent defendants will not be "incarcerated for [their] inability to pay fine[s] or court costs or restitution." Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11(i)(2). The procedures are guided by four key components: access to counsel, notification forms, "indigence/ability-to-pay" hearings, and express judicial findings.
Under the proposed judicial procedures, a debtor who does not otherwise have counsel is to be represented by a public defender at all compliance and indigence/ability-to-pay hearings. A public defender will also be available to a debtor who needs assistance completing an affidavit of substantial hardship and related documentation prior to hearings. Lastly, public defenders are instructed to inform any debtor who is ultimately subject to imprisonment of her appellate rights.
If a debtor is unable to pay her fine, she will be notified of her right to a public defender, the date of her compliance hearing, and her right to present evidence of financial hardship through a set of forms: Form One ("Payment of Fines and Costs") and Form Two ("Order Setting Hearing for Compliance Review"). The forms notify the debtor that an individual "cannot be put in jail solely for [her] inability to pay... fines and costs" absent a finding of willful non-payment. The forms go on to indicate how a debtor would begin establishing inability to pay at her first compliance hearing.
During a debtor's first compliance hearing-scheduled for all debtors who do not pay their fines and costs in full at their first appearance-the debtor must be given the opportunity to dispute the amount allegedly owed. Additionally, the municipal-court judge is required to ask why the debtor has failed to pay in full, specifically asking whether the debtor "is able to pay [that day]." If, in response to the municipal court's inquiry, the debtor indicates that she is unable to pay, the court will direct the debtor to a public defender and schedule an indigence/ability-to-pay hearing. Even if the debtor does not indicate an ...