Criminal Justice

ACLU Suit Aims to Stop Debtors' Prison in Texas Town

Group says Santa Fe tosses misdemeanor violators in jail if they can't pay-and starves them, too.

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Prison cell
Raja Rc / Dreamstime.com

The tiny town of Santa Fe, Texas (population 12,000), found not far south of Houston, has a big problem with using low-level misdemeanor citations to pad its revenue and threatening low-income citizens with jail time unless they cough up some money.

It's a debtors' prison shake-down, according to the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and they've just filed a class-action lawsuit to try to stop it.

The lawsuit, representing three men so far, alleges that Santa Fe jails people for normally non-jailable offenses (like traffic violations) unless they shell out money for fines without any sort of consideration of whether these people are able to pay them. The system is designed to keep the accused from getting counsel if they can't afford it and pushes those caught up in it to plead "no contest" in order to be permitted on a monthly payment plan that would allow them to avoid jail. The ACLU claims in the suit it's all about the money and the city knows it:

The Municipal Judge allows budgetary considerations to color his judgment about whether to dismiss cases. The judge recently identified dozens of cases in which the prosecutor could not prove the charges against the accused. The judge nevertheless declined to dismiss those charges, because of the negative impact on overall fines owed to the City. If a person is arrested under an open warrant in one of these cases, it is likely that the court will accept her no contest plea and entered a conviction against her—despite the judge's knowing that the prosecutor would be unable to prove his case.

Santa Fe actually jacked up fines last year in order to help deal with a $600,000 budget shortfall. The lawsuit notes that the city participates in a Texas "warrant round-up" to wring fines out of citizens timed to coincide when residents are getting their annual tax refunds.

And there's more. Santa Fe, after tossing people charged with low-level misdemeanors into jail cells for days, is starving them, the ACLU contends. If you end up in Santa Fe's jail, your breakfast is one single Pop Tart. Your lunch is the second Pop Tart from that package. Your dinner is a microwaved Hungry Man meal:

The City of Santa Fe's projected spending on jail supplies, for the most recent year for which that statistic is available, was $1500.00 per year. Even if the entirety of this budget went toward food, Santa Fe limited the total spending on food for all people in the Chief's custody to just $4.11 per day. This is only slightly more than the City's projected spending on supplies for dogs in the Police Department's canine unit, which was $3.84 per day.

They also calculated out the caloric intake of such a feeding schedule. It worked out to 720 calories, which is even less than the amount of food a 1-year-old child is supposed to eat daily (The ACLU even provides handy charts in the lawsuit). That's assuming people get fed anything at all. Apparently the record-keeping in all this is so bad that several people say they sometimes didn't even get their "meals."

Santa Fe is the latest in a new push for legal action against municipalities. The need for a new wave of action got massive amounts of publicity from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, over the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown. Lest folks forget, the anger wasn't just over whether police were justified in shooting Brown, but over the larger issue of small St. Louis County municipalities using fines and citations to drain money from residents to pay bankroll themselves and line their pockets. These were typically poor minorities who did not have the resources to resist, and municipal judges and governments took advantage of that reality.

The lawsuit notes that efforts to stop behavior like what we see in Santa Fe have cropped up in nine other states and in other Texas cities. Brian Doherty previously wrote about a lawsuit in Arkansas to stop similar tactics. The Institute for Justice is going after a St. Louis suburb for trying to use loads of absurd city codes (like having mismatched curtains) to try to extract money from citizens.

Read the ACLU's lawsuit here, and drive very carefully if you find yourself in Santa Fe, Texas.

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  1. Sounds like Joe Arpaio’s wet dream

    1. I’m guessing that would include more assless chaps and anal lube.

  2. So what is the appropriate thing to do to people who can’t pay a fine?

      1. +1 SQL Injection. Nice.

    1. Jail for unpaid fines is unconstitutional if the defendant is destitute, see Bearden v. Georgia

      1. Ok, great. Now that that’s out of the way…

        So what is the appropriate thing to do to people who can’t pay a fine?

        1. Payment plans? Community service?

          1. Not to defend welfare queens, but is community service appropriate for someone who can’t work or is working three jobs to make ends meet?

            1. It’s like toaster strudel, but not as good.

              1. I’d like to see you try to make a gun out of a toaster strudel. You’ll never hit anything Mr Floppy Barrel.

        2. The complaint also touches on this, by the way.

          The Santa Fe Municipal Court ignores the constitutional requirement to offer reasonable alternatives, like community service or proportional fines, for the indigent. Instead, the court simply sentences people to pay fines, and enforces those fines by ordering anyone who cannot pay her fine to make payments in what can be unmanageable installments, generally $100 per month.

          1. $100 a month is $25 a week, or $3.57 a day, less than a pack of smokes. I don’t think that is unmanageable.

            1. You’ve never been poor. What’s worse, you can’t imagine how anyone could not afford to pay $100 a month. You also seem to think that everyone smokes, and that all smokers can just quit smoking at any moment.

              And what is absolutely atrocious is that you apparently haven’t read the fine article and don’t understand that these people were arrested for nonsense charges that the judge knows can’t be proven. You apparently seem to think it’s just fine and dandy for coercive government to lock people up and starve them for no fucking reason.

              Fuck off, slaver.

        3. Let them go. If a crime isn’t severe enough to warrant a trial and jail sentence, then it probably isn’t worth the cops time to enforce.

          1. That’s no way to fund a new K-9 officer.

          2. The point of course being that too many things are “crimes” that shouldn’t be.

          3. And that’s the thing.

            Take speeding for example. If someone is exceeding the posted speed limit but not by enough to call it reckless endangerment, is it really unsafe? Fines to enforce “safety” really just ought to be called revenue generation and then gotten rid of.

    2. Make some rich guy pay it. Fair share!

  3. Santa Fe actually jacked up fines last year in order to help deal with a $600,000 budget shortfall.

    They’re just getting what was stolen from us. /Van Jones

  4. It worked out to 720 calories

    You know who else discovered you could kill people faster on 900 calories a day?

    1. Apparently these people have never heard of McDonald’s.

    2. Pro-anorexia sites?

  5. How long till somebody burns down the houses of some prominent citizens?

    * standard Preet disclaimer indicating internet hyperbole *

    1. * standard Preet disclaimer indicating locker room talk *

  6. Just to be clear for all you deplorables who only come for the comments, this is Santa Fe, TX. New Mexico has enough problems without shouldering this one as well. (Although I wouldn’t in the slightest be surprised that some of our speed trap towns are guilty of similar practices. Looking at you, Corrales.)

    1. New Mexico has enough problems

      Like Gary Johnson.

    2. btw,
      Who is Saint Fey?

    3. White crystal wavers are the only people who live in Santa Fe, NM

  7. I completely share the author’s overall sentiment. However, I do have some nits to pick:

    1) Conflating misdemeanor vs civil traffic offenses. I am a strong proponent of the idea that a non-criminal violation should never be allowed to progress to a criminal violation simply due to non-payment (use the debt collection process like private individuals owed money). However, a misdemeanor is a criminal violation (plus understand I am including all the usual caveats about victimless crimes like drugs, gambling, prostitution etc.).

    2) If a person is arrested on an open warrant, and not allowed legal counsel, I would think this would be a huge story. Unless what is happening, is that a person gets a speeding ticket, doesn’t pay the fine, gets their license suspended and then goes to court to try and get the suspension lifted? But as soon as a person is “arrested”, I don’t see how this wouldn’t be bigger news. I am not convinced this is quite the case the ACLU is saying it is.

    3) I am pretty sure a Hungry Man dinner by itself is WELL over 750 calories (not that this is the way people should be fed).

    1. http://www.calorieking.com/foo…..5MTkz.html

      XXL Roasted Carved Turkey:
      1449 calories

      Classic Fried Chicken:
      959

    2. 3)

      After googling around for a bit the day’s count is probably closer to 1400kcal. Not pleasant, but you’re probably not doing a lot of moving around in a jail cell anyway.

    3. In the complaint, the wording was “and a frozen meal, such as a Hungry Man frozen dinner, at night.” It’s quite possible that on some days they’re getting something like Lean Cuisine. The 720 number is cited only for October of this year, which could suggest that they were not getting Hungry Man meals last month.

      Just picking nits from a nits picked.

      1. Yes, but how many nits could a nit-picker pick if a nit-picker could pick nits?

        Ah-AH! Got you there my friend!

    4. On issue #1, anywhere in Texas the real punishment for a traffic offense is jail where you can make a legal bribe to get out of it. This is true, at the very least for moving violations like speeding 5-25MPH over, although I couldn’t say if it’s the same deal for expired registration or whathaveyou.

      Most people just pay the bribe because it’s either not that much, or they can take defensive driving, or they just don’t think about it at all. ‘The poor’ aren’t that poor if they have a vehicle at all though, unless you want to seriously start redefining what the hell that word means.

      ‘Poor’ isn’t the same as ‘mortgaged to the hilt’, you know. This doesn’t mean that I agree with this bullshit, but Scott is apparently either blissfully unaware of any of this or isn’t saying what he means. $100 a month is nothing in the grand scheme of city or county payment plans, so the ‘wah, unfair poors’ argument doesn’t hold any water for me.

      If anything, why is it fair to charge someone with a job more money for the same ‘crime’ jerkweed? How about you explain that?

  8. the larger issue of small St. Louis County municipalities using fines and citations to drain money from residents

    You mean that issue that has been completely memory-holed?

    1. Between the issues of racism and revenuers we collectively went with racism. It’s easier to spell.

  9. Wait, so government is actually a legalized shakedown outfit?

    No way!

  10. Scott strikes again with superior alt-text.

  11. The biggest WTF part of the complaint:

    To make matters worse, the Municipal Judge allows budgetary considerations to color his judgment about whether to dismiss cases. The judge recently identified dozens of cases in which the prosecutor could not prove the charges against the accused. The judge nevertheless declined to dismiss those charges, because of the negative impact on overall fines owed to the City. If a person is arrested under an open warrant in one of these cases, it is likely that the court will accept her no contest plea and entered a conviction against her ?despite the judge’s knowing that the prosecutor would be unable to prove his case.

  12. is starving them, the ACLU contends. If you end up in Santa Fe’s jail, your breakfast is one single Pop Tart. Your lunch is the second Pop Tart from that package. Your dinner is a microwaved Hungry Man meal:

    sounds better than my daily meal schedule in my 20s.

    1. Coffee for breakfast, ramen for lunch, maybe a McDouble for dinner?

      1. no coffee, caffeine has adverse affects on me. It was usually water or gatorade for breakfast, no lunch, mcdouble for dinner……but all the calories from alcohol at night offset the starvation.

    2. Yeah that’s me currently (mid 20’s).

      1. You are in your mid 20’s and you choose Mithrandir???

        You must be an ever bigger nerd than I am. (And that is saying something!)

        1. Hey you shut your whore mouth.

    3. If you’re not happy with the meals, then don’t be poor.

      1. +1 job-flight from my job-cannon wearing my job-helmet into Jobland, where jobs grow on jobbies

  13. Santa Fe jails people for normally non-jailable offenses (like traffic violations) unless they shell out money for fines without any sort of consideration of whether these people are able to pay them.

    At least you are getting equal non-protection under the law.

  14. “The lawsuit, representing three men so far, alleges that Santa Fe jails people for normally non-jailable offenses (like traffic violations)…”

    Are you retarded? They will literally put you in jail for those if you don’t pay them anywhere in Texas, and I imagine the same goes for everywhere in America. I say this from actual experience, by the way.

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