Tag: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

U.S. District Judge Rules Orleans Criminal Court Can No Longer Jail Anyone for Failing to Pay Fines or Fees Without Neutral Hearing

Carvings on the Orleans Parish Courthouse read: THE IMPARTIAL ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE IS THE FOUNDATION OF LIBERTY. (Photo by Seth Gaines)

by  via theadvocate.com

Everyone who owes fines and fees from criminal convictions in Orleans Parish must have the chance to plead poverty in a “neutral forum” before landing in jail for failing to pay, a federal judge ruled Friday.

Barring an appeal, the ruling from U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance marks the end of a three-year legal battle over the so-called “debtors’ prison” lawsuit brought by a handful of criminal convicts who were jailed for days or longer in Orleans Parish without a chance to prove they couldn’t afford to pay the fines and fees they owed.

Vance broadened the scope of the case Thursday with a 35-page order granting class-action status to anyone who owes court-issued fines and fees now or in the future.

On Friday, Vance declared that “undisputed evidence” shows the 13 judges of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have “a policy or practice of not inquiring into criminal defendants’ ability to pay before those individuals are imprisoned for nonpayment of court debts.”

She also declared that the judges have an “institutional conflict of interest” in making such poverty determinations themselves. That’s because the proceeds from fines and fees go directly to the court’s Judicial Expense Fund, a kitty controlled by the judges that can be used for a broad range of judicial expenses. Fines and fees have contributed about $1 million a year to the court’s coffers.

Vance ruled that the court’s failure to “provide a neutral forum for determination of such persons’ ability to pay is unconstitutional.” The decision appears to leave it up to the court to decide how to set up a mechanism for such decisions.

Vance telegraphed her final ruling with a preliminary decision on key issues in the case in December.

On Friday, she cited a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars states from arresting or detaining a defendant solely for failing to pay court costs, without determining if that failure was willful.

For years, the Orleans Parish court’s collections department — and individual judges — routinely issued arrest warrants for people who failed to pay fines and fees assessed after a conviction. Civil rights groups claimed that practice created an “unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors’ prison.”

In response to the legal attack, court officials recalled thousands of arrest warrants issued solely on the basis of unpaid fines or fees, writing off about $1 million in debts in the process.

Other warrants remain in place, such as those involving failure to appear in court or lapsed restitution payments to victims. Vance settled most of the issues from the federal lawsuit in December. But on Thursday, she ruled that her decision applies to a broad class of people: everyone who now owes money from fines and fees, and everyone who will incur those debts in the future.

However, she threw out a separate claim by the plaintiffs, who argued that it is unconstitutional to jail people who fail to pay criminal fines when those who owe fines from civil judgments don’t face the same threat.

Regardless, attorneys for the plaintiffs claimed a big win Friday.

“This is a victory for the people of New Orleans and for those committed to fixing the breaks in the criminal justice system,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“America treats being poor as a crime, disproportionately victimizing people of color. This ruling ensures that people can no longer be thrown in jail in Orleans Parish for their poverty alone.”

Read more: https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/courts/article_92c18cda-9754-11e8-8ab4-d326e5f47bbc.html

U.S Supreme Court Rules Georgia Prosecutors Violated Constitution’s “Equal Protection” Clause by Rejecting Black Jurors in Murder Case

SCOTUS building (photo via wikipedia.com)
SCOTUS building (photo via wikipedia.com)

article by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (follow @lakinhutcherson)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a 7-1 decision issued today, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Foster v. Chapman, No. 14-8349, that Butts County, Georgia prosecutors violated the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution by rejecting two prospective African-American jurors because of their race in the capital murder trial of  Timothy Foster, an African-American man who was convicted of capital murder in 1987 by an all-white jury.

Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion, which was joined by five of his colleagues, cited several pieces of evidence from the prosecutors’ files that supported the Court’s conclusion, including the first five names of a “Definite NO” list of six prospective jurors containing the only five African-Americans in the jury pool; multiple documents that identified the African-American prospective jurors by their race; and notes with “N” for “no” appearing next to the names of all the African-American members of the jury pool.

The Court also found that the race-neutral reasons the prosecutors offered for rejecting two of the African-American prospective jurors did not withstand scrutiny because (1) the prosecutors offered shifting rationales at different stages of the proceedings and (2) the reasons offered for excluding the African-American jurors did not result in the prosecutors rejecting white prospective jurors who had the same characteristics that led to the dismissal of the African-American jurors. The Court dismissed one of the prosecutors’ rationales as “[n]onsense.”

“The systematic exclusion of African-Americans from juries, particularly in serious criminal and capital cases, is a problem that we continue to see today,” stated Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.  “The Lawyers’ Committee is pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling which affirms the longstanding, fundamental constitutional principle that prospective jurors cannot be rejected because of their race. The evidence in this case was overwhelming that prosecutors were determined to try Mr. Foster, an African-American man, before an all-white jury.  All defendants are entitled to a fair trial and excluding prospective jurors based on their race taints the process because it means that defendants are not tried by a jury inclusive of their peers.”

The Supreme Court’s decision reversed the Georgia Supreme Court and sent the case back to the Georgia Supreme Court for further proceedings consistent with the opinion. Though he did not join in Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion, Judge Alito concurred in the judgment.  Justice Thomas dissented.