As reported in a previous post and extensively in the media, the U.S. Department of Justice recently found that the municipal court in Ferguson, Missouri imposed fees “that are widely considered abusive and may be unlawful.”
Two recent settlements indicate that the problem is not confined to Ferguson.
The Southern Center for Human Rights announced that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia has given preliminary approval to a settlement in a class action alleging the Grady County State Court collected unauthorized “administrative costs” from defendants. Under the settlement, the defendants will refund administrative costs and pay $100 to the estimated 400 members of the plaintiff class.
The former Grady County State Court judge is a defendant in the case. In March 2013, based on his consent, the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission sanctioned him for, without any legal authority, ordering the collection of administrative costs from criminal defendants, “in what appeared to be an effort to ‘maximize’ the collection of revenue,” in addition to other misconduct. (The sanction was a 60-day suspension without pay, a reprimand, probation until the end of his term, and a bar from running for re-election.)
The ACLU of Georgia announced that, to settle an unrelated federal lawsuit, the Chief Judge of the DeKalb County Recorder’s Court “agreed to take measures to protect the rights of people who cannot afford to make fine and fee payments required as a condition of probation for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses.” The measures include:
- Adoption of a “bench card” that instructs judges “to avoid sending people to jail because they owe court fines and are unable to pay,” lists the alternatives to jail, outlines the procedure for determining ability to pay, and “instructs judges on how to protect people’s right to counsel in probation revocation proceedings.”
- Training and guidance to court personnel on probationers’ right to counsel in revocation proceedings and to an indigency hearing before being jailed for failure to pay fines and fees.
- Revision of forms to advise people charged with probation violations of their rights to court-appointed counsel and to request a waiver of any public defender fees they cannot afford.
The case had alleged that the constitutional rights of a black teenager, who was jailed because he could not afford to pay court fines and probation company fees stemming from a traffic ticket, were violated by the county, the for-profit probation company, and the chief judge of the court that sentenced him to jail.