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Racist, Corrupt Judges Shaking Down the Poor

It is ironic that the most recent example of traffic court debtor’s prison came out of Georgia.

The killing of an unarmed African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent controversy over how it happened, have created a national movement to provide body cameras for law enforcement officers to protect the policed from excessive force and to protect the police from false claims.

Differing witness accounts of the Ferguson shooting meant there would be no criminal prosecution of the officer, but a Justice Department investigation revealed why the African-American community being policed by white officers was ready to believe the worst.

This week, The New York Times revealed the same corruption exposed in the DOJ report on Ferguson with a lot less trouble. An outraged citizen risked her freedom to catch the judge in action on a smartphone.

Judge Richard A. Diment of Bowdon, Georgia Municipal Court was surreptitiously recorded extorting money from traffic offense defendants by a threat of immediate jailing. It was exactly the same scenario the DOJ report documented in Ferguson: White judge, minority defendants, and no lawyers.

Here’s how it goes in too many courts all over the U.S. A driver who got a ticket for a real violation does not come to court because he or she has no money to pay the fine. Or the driver comes to contest the ticket, loses, and gets some time to pay the fine. On the day the fine is due, there is no money.

Immediately, the trouble the driver is in doubles, because a charge of failure to appear in court is added. Nobody is going to criticize a judge for not granting an easy bail on a failure to appear.

Another way to get in deep financial trouble quickly is to commit “contempt of cop” during a traffic stop, which will lead some officers to see how many violations they can write at one time in addition to the one ticket that was the original reason for the stop.

Every ticket and every failure to appear is a separate arrest warrant.

The city of Ferguson, in 2013, issued 33,000 arrest warrants out of the Municipal Court of a city of 21,000 souls, where traffic fines and penalties were the second largest source of city revenue, one fifth of Ferguson’s income.

An individual with warrants dare not renew a driver’s license for fear of getting arrested. Moving to another state does not help because most states belong to an interstate compact that means they will not issue a driver’s license to somebody who owes fines in another state.

Once the license expires or is suspended, there is a whole other reason to get arrested when caught driving. Of course, you don’t need to be driving to get arrested on the warrants. All you have to do is come to the attention of an officer who has reason to check your identification. Lying about your identity is still yet another ground for arrest.

People who cannot produce enough money to pay a traffic ticket are generally living on the edge, and every time they get arrested on their traffic warrants they may lose their jobs. In many states there are penalties, collection fees, or interest added to the total owed. Hundreds of dollars quickly become thousands of dollars.

The federal courts have held again and again that nobody can be jailed for being unable to pay a fine. A federal court decision will not get you a cup of coffee without a lawyer, and nobody who could afford a lawyer would be in danger of traffic court debtor’s prison.

It is ironic that the most recent example of traffic court debtor’s prison came out of Georgia, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s best known decision holding that people may not be locked up for being unable to pay was the 1983 case of Bearden v. Georgia. Of course, when I was a Municipal Judge in Texas, these same practices were common, and in those days the controlling SCOTUS authority was the 1971 case of Tate v. Short—a case from Texas.

Jail for being unable to pay a fine denies equal protection of the law to poor people and is usually done in a way that denies due process of law. Both of these rights—equal protection and due process—apply to tribal courts though the Indian Civil Rights Act and, since we are talking about getting locked up, there is an available remedy in federal habeas corpus.

For poor people who have a lawyer on speed dial, that is.

An issue as serious as jailing people for being poor is that the woman who recorded the judge violating the law was lucky she did not wind up in jail for having done so. Most jurisdictions forbid recordings in the courtroom.

Aren’t there court reporters? Often, Municipal Courts do not have court reporters, and those that exist work at the pleasure of the judge. It’s unlawful for an official court reporter to fail to take a record but it’s a bit unrealistic to expect the court reporter to be more solicitous of legalities than the judge who employs him or her. Besides, anybody who has enough money to pay a court reporter for a record probably had enough money to pay the fine in the first place.

The Municipal Judges and Justices of the Peace who typically run these illegal shakedowns are at the very bottom of the judicial system. Some of them, like the Georgia judge caught on camera, are part time. Every state has some mechanism for judicial discipline and the judge has to answer every complaint filed. The thicker the file of complaints, the better the chance of removing a petty tyrant short of his biological end. Until removed, these “judges” are people with very little power harming people with no power to enrich their city or county employers. Because they can.