ACLU files lawsuit against a South Carolina county for allegedly imprisoning people who can't afford to pay minor fines

When single mother Twanda Marshinda Brown fell behind paying a $US100 instalment of a traffic violation, she had to spend 57 days in a South Carolina jail. Because she could not come in for work at a food-packaging facility, Brown also lost the job that supported her seven kids.

Along with four other people who spent time in jail for not being able to pay fees for minor violations, Brown is a plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Lexington County, South Carolina.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union’s South Carolina branch, the five plaintiffs are challenging the county’s practice of arresting and jailing people who do not have the money to pay their fines.

“Arresting and jailing people who can’t pay makes people who are living on the margins even more marginalized,” Nusrat Choudhury, the attorney leading the case, told Business Insider. She added that even though the practice occurs throughout the country, close to 1,000 people have been incarcerated in Lexington in the past year.

One time, Choudhury came across a case in which a person was arrested for not being able to pay only a $US232 bill.

“I got dressed and sent my 13-year-old to take the trash out,” Brown, who made five payments of a $US2,400 sentence and then started missing them because her son needed surgery for his jaw, said in her account of the case. “I didn’t want him to see me in handcuffs and taken to jail.”

Over her 57 days in jail, Brown turned 40 and missed her cousin’s death, her son’s 17th birthday and the first birthday of her granddaughter. But most of all, she worried that her 13-year-old son would be taken away by Social Services while she behind bars.

“It made me feel sick to think that I could lose him while I was in jail because I could not afford to pay traffic fines,” Brown said.

When someone in Lexington County is unable to pay a city fine, they have to make monthly payments or risk going to jail — in Brown’s case, $US100 a month. Even though such practices can continue the cycle of poverty, many counties continue to rely on low-level arrests in order to generate revenue through court fees, according to Choudhury.

“The revenue stream continues even though the percentage of people living in poverty is increasing,” Choudhury said, adding that people are strapped with court fees even after their fine is waived on account of time served. In the lawsuit, the ACLU states that Lexington County generated more than $US1.4 million from traffic and criminal fines between 2015 and 2016.

In 1983, the Supreme Court found that it was illegal for courts to send people to jail because they are unable to pay their fees. That said, different interpretations of what it means to “wilfully refuse” to pay a fine have allowed individual courts to bypass the ruling for more than 30 years.

As South Carolina’s ACLU squares off to challenge the practice in Lexington, courts in states such as Texas, Mississippi and Alabama have already determined that the practice was illegal.

“When they come out, they’re even more financially vulnerable than they were before they went in,” said Choudhury.

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