Man Fined $450 For Stealing $5 Worth Of Food Accuses Court Of Profiting Off Debtors Prison

An inmate being returned to a Louisiana jail in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCOTT THRELKELD
An inmate being returned to a Louisiana jail in 2014 CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SCOTT THRELKELD

For stealing $5 worth of food to feed his family, Rozzie Scott says he was ordered to pay the Bogalusa City Court in Louisiana more than $450.

Scott’s crime might have belied the fact that he is not flush with cash. But when he told Judge Robert J. Black he couldn’t afford to pay the fine and the court fees, the judge allegedly ignored him. Instead, Black told him he could either pay the court a $50 “extension fee” to buy himself more time to somehow get $450 or go to jail. Since Scott didn’t have that sum of money either, he was arrested and booked into the city jail for four hours until a cousin was able to bring $50 to the courthouse and set him free.

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Scott is still free, but it may not last. If he doesn’t come up with the $450 before July 25, he’s at risk of being jailed once again.

Scott is one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday morning by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) against the Bogalusa City Court and Judge Black, alleging that its operations amount to an unconstitutional, modern-day debtors prison. Judges are legally required to consider people’s financial situation when issuing fines and fees. Black is accused of violating this by routinely jailing the majority of people who can’t afford to pay penalties for minor traffic and misdemeanor offenses without considering their ability to pay.

More than a third of Bogalusa’s population lives below the poverty line, and median household income is about $25,000, less than half of the median income for all American households. But anyone who has the resources to pay the fines and fees that the court levies against them can walk free.

CREDIT: SPLC
CREDIT: SPLC

On top of this, the lawsuit alleges that Black won’t accept any partial payments or the use of payment plans. Plaintiff Robert Levi was sentenced to pay a $100 fine plus court costs for driving with expired car insurance and a $50 fine plus court costs for running a stop sign. He says he paid the $50 extension fee to buy himself a little more time at his first court date — money he had set aside to pay his bills, which he says he ended up paying late — but still came up $40 short by his next court appearance. Yet when he asked a city court employee whether he could make a partial payment, the lawsuit alleges that he was told Judge Black “does not take partial payments” and that he “better call somebody” because the judge was “gonna lock you up!” He was only able to avoid jail, he says, by borrowing the $40 from a friend.

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Those like Levi who are able to scrape together the full amount they owe are allowed to pay and leave, the lawsuit alleges. But at the end of the session, it says, those who are less lucky are walked down the courthouse steps to the adjacent jail, sometime handcuffed together, and booked. Plaintiff Latasha Cook, whose main source of income is a disability check she receives each month, says she has experienced that treatment. On a court date when Judge Black asked her if she had $50 to buy more time, she said she didn’t, and she was handcuffed and booked into jail.

Anyone who fails to appear at the court on the pay date is ordered to serve 15 days in jail or pay a $250 cash bond, according to the lawsuit. Black has sometimes said in open court when issuing such orders that someone who doesn’t show can still “buy their way out of jail.”

CREDIT: SPLC
CREDIT: SPLC

Judge Black goes even further than some of the other debtors prisons that have been uncovered across the country. The $50 “extension fee” is a new innovation, one the SPLC calls illegal because city courts aren’t authorized to create new court costs and fees under state law.

Even so, Black gives people two choices, the lawsuit says: pay the $50 to get additional time to pay the fines and fees he’s assessed, money that won’t be put toward the amount owed, or go to jail. If someone is able to get the $50 shortly after being jailed he or she can still be released, as was the case for one person who was jailed at 2:52 but released 19 minutes later, according to a jail log, after paying the $50 fee. The court collected extension fees from at least 100 people in 2015, netting $5,000.

CREDIT: SPLC
CREDIT: SPLC

What’s even more troubling about this practice is that it serves to directly fill the court’s coffers. Louisiana doesn’t have a unified funding system for courts, nor does it oversee city court budgets. The Bogalusa City Court gets operating funds from four sources: the state, the Washington Parish Government, the city itself, and its own assessment of costs and fees. But the government funding from the first three sources is never enough to cover all of its expenses, the lawsuit says. In 2014, for example, it had a $106,577 shortfall, or over a quarter of its expenditures. So the remainder must come from court costs and fees levied against residents.

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At least 15 percent of its expenditures are regularly covered by the money it generates from criminal defendants, according to the lawsuit. The $50 extension fees and contempt fees for failure to appear are put into a “judicial expense” account that Judge Black created. That money, along with the other fines and fees, amounted to nearly $57,000 and covered approximately 15 percent of the court’s operating budget in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Even more was generated last year: at least $69,000, representing about 20 percent of the court budget.

Without this money, the City Court could not function.

“Without this money, the City Court could not function,” the lawsuit claims. “The manner in which Defendants fund the City Court creates a structural conflict of interest between [Judge] Black’s duty to impartially adjudicate cases and his executive responsibility to raise money to pay for the City Court’s operating expenses.”

This is not the first time a city in Louisiana has come under fire for debtors prison practices. Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the state’s criminal district court for imposing fees without hearings about people’s ability to pay and indefinitely jailing those who fall behind on payments. As with Bogalusa, the money that people did pay was used to fund the judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana last year found that courts throughout the state “routinely incarcerate people simply because they are too poor to pay fines and fees,” often for minor offenses, while “others are given the impossible choice between a fine they can’t afford and a stay in jail.”

A researcher also found that the state’s criminal courts have become “financially dependent” on fines and fees imposed on defendants, creating a possible conflict of interest, particularly amid state budget pressures.

And the budget pressures have only mounted since then. Budget shortfalls stemming from generous tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy have led to deep cuts, including the largest ever cut for public defenders that has left people languishing in jails because they have no counsel. In April, a judge ordered the release of seven inmates awaiting trial for serious felony charges because the budget crisis left the city without the money to defend them.