LITTLE ROCK—An Arkansas judge is violating the constitutional rights of thousands of poor people who appear in his court by imposing excessive fines and jail time when they can't pay, creating a spiral of debt for many who are already struggling financially, a civil rights group said in a lawsuit filed Thursday.
The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the suit in state court against White County District Judge Mark Derrick, accusing him of imposing substantial fines against people convicted of even the most minor infractions without any inquiry about their ability to pay. The group filed the suit on behalf of six Arkansas residents who have been fined or jailed by Derrick. The group is seeking to have the lawsuit certified as class-action.
The lawsuit is similar to other complaints the group has filed in Arkansas and elsewhere focusing on the problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford. The group said many of the defendants fined or jailed by Derrick are impoverished, with little or no income.
"They live in continuing fear that an unexpected expense or job loss will lead to another round of unavoidable jail," the group said in its lawsuit.
Derrick did not immediately return messages left Thursday.
The plaintiffs in the case include Tina Marie Phares, a 47-year-old Beebe, Ark., woman who has been entangled in Derrick's courts since early 2015, mostly as a result of tickets for driving on a suspended license, according to the lawsuit. The group said Phares is approximately $15,000 in debt from convictions before Derrick's court and fears she will be thrown back in jail at any time.
"She is effectively destitute now but determined to start anew," the lawsuit said.
The issue of excessive fines gained attention during the investigation into the 2014 killing of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. A Justice Department probe found that the court system in Ferguson was generating revenue from poor and minority residents through fines, court costs and other fees. A consent agreement requires Ferguson to remedy mistreatment of black residents by the St. Louis suburb's police and court system.
A central Arkansas city and judge last year agreed to change the way they handle suspects charged with writing bad checks in response to a similar lawsuit filed by the Lawyers' Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.
"This is analogous to the pattern we've seen in other places where we're also fighting modern day debtors' prisons, where jurisdictions rely on and count on a growing sum of money to come from fines and fees extracted off the backs of poor people," Kristen Clarke, president and chief executive officer of the Lawyers' Committee, told reporters in a conference call.