Judge faces federal lawsuit: Civil rights group alleges Black runs ‘debtor’s prison’

Published 8:22 am Friday, June 24, 2016

Lawyers with the Southern Poverty Law Center are suing Bogalusa Municipal Court Judge Robert Black and the court itself in federal court because, the SPLC alleges, Black is running a “debtor’s prison” where he is jailing people who cannot afford to pay their fines.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Bearden v. Georgia, that state and local courts may not jail a person who cannot pay a fine. However, the court may imprison someone who can pay a fine but is willfully refusing to do so.

Lawyers with the SPLC argue that Black is jailing people without even asking them why they’re not able to pay their fine. In addition, the SPLC’s lawsuit alleges that Black is violating state law by charging illegal fees to defendants in order to stay out of jail.

Black said he could not comment yet on the allegations.

“I definitely want to comment on the matter,” Black wrote, in a statement. “But judges are bound to follow rules and canons that strictly limit comments, particularly on pending matters. I am seeking the input of the Judicial Administrator of the Louisiana Supreme Court and I plan to comment early next week.”

Black added that he invites anyone from the public to attend his court proceedings each Monday at 9:30 a.m.

According to the lawsuit, Black will not accept partial payments. Instead, he allegedly asks for the entire fine to be paid upon sentencing or the defendant will go to jail. But, according to the lawsuit, Black offers defendants time to collect the fine in exchange for a $50 fee known as an “extension fee.”

“This extension fee is not authorized by state law,” the lawsuit states. “However, Defendant Black gives individuals unable to pay their monetary penalties in full a false choice: they may either go to jail for non-payment of fines and costs or pay this illegal $50 extension fee to buy additional time to pay their monetary penalty.”

The court keeps these fees and they are part of the court’s budget. The court is partly funded through fines.

In total, the SPLC found that Black’s court raised nearly $70,000 last year from fines and “extension fees.”

Under state law, municipal courts are funded in part by court fees attached to regular fines. However, Micah West, a lawyer with the SPLC, points out that this creates a kind of conflict of interest, as the fewer defendants found guilty in court, the less the court gets in operational budget.

West said this system creates mistrust of the entire system.

“What you’re seeing in the Bogalusa community is a community that’s mistrustful of the judge as a judge that is just interested in money, and that’s not how we want a court system to operate,” West said.

West said lawyers from the SPLC personally witnessed Black sentencing people recently in Bogalusa.

“We went to the city court and observed a number of people being jailed on that day,” he said. “On that day, I saw four or five or six people who couldn’t pay their traffic misdemeanor cases. When that happened, the judge pointed to the right and he had them sit there, in front of the bench.

“At the end of the court, the marshals handcuffed them. Everyone was very upset and the defendants started bursting out in tears. One defendant burst into tears and said to his mother, ‘Mom, they’re sending me to jail because I don’t have $50.’”

Plaintiffs say   punishments don’t fit crimes

The four plaintiffs named in the SPLC’s lawsuit are Ebony Roberts, Rozzie Scott, Latasha Cook and Robert Levi.

While the defendants before Black are typically accused of relatively small crimes, they are often fined hundreds of dollars or sentenced to weeks or months in jail.

Scott, for example, is alleged to have stolen $5 in hamburger meat and a pizza to feed his family.

In a statement given to the SPLC, Scott said he lives in Bogalusa in public housing with his grandmother.

“Although I have tried to find work, I cannot find a job, and I have no income,” he said in the statement. “I struggle each month to pay for food, clothing, housing, transportation and other living needs for my family and me.”

Scott said he was arrested in February for stealing food at a local store. Scott pleaded not guilty, but on May 12, Judge Black found him guilty and fined him $450 for stealing the food plus more fines to cover the court costs.

According to the lawsuit, Scott didn’t have $450 plus court costs.

“Mr. Scott returned to the city court on June 13, 2016, but did not have the money to pay his fine and court costs,” the lawsuit states. “After telling defendant Black that he could not pay, defendant Black asked him if he had $50 for an extension of time to pay the fine and costs. After Mr. Scott told defendant Black that he did not have $50, defendant Black told Mr. Scott to sit in a chair on the side of the courtroom and wait for his arrest.

According to the SPLC lawsuit, “defendant Black never asked him why he did not have the money or whether he was working. While Mr. Scott waited, defendant Black told other defendants that they would go to jail if they could not pay the extension fee or their fines plus costs. At the end of court, Mr. Scott was arrested and booked into the city jail, where he spent about four hours until his cousin paid the $50 extension fee for his release. After Mr. Scott was released from jail, he was told that he had to pay the fine plus costs on or before July 25, 2016.”

Had Scott not shown up because he had no money, he likely would have had to pay even more.

According to the SPLC lawsuit, defendants who miss court payments are automatically sentenced to 15 days in jail as punishment or they must pay an additional $250 contempt of court fee, which is used to fund the court.

If Scott cannot pay his fine, his jail term could be extensive.

Latasha Cook, a plaintiff in the SPLC lawsuit, was found guilty of disturbing the peace. For that, Black sentenced her to three months in jail or she had to pay $300 plus court costs and she would need to complete substance abuse treatment.

West points out that a three-month jail term might not be the best punishment for someone who is already struggling to afford to pay fines.

“To the extent that someone was working, they might lose their job,” he said. “There’s a tremendous amount of shame that’s involved. I spoke to another young woman in Louisiana who had gone to jail for not paying her fine. She was in high school and she had dropped out of high school afterward because she was too ashamed to go back.”

West said her biggest crime was that she was too poor to pay the fine.

“She didn’t have the money,” he said.

SPLC: Long jail terms hurt      families

West argues that lengthy jail terms also put stress on families.

“They’re taken away from the children, and the children might not have a caretaker, and if it’s on their record, it may affect them long term,” he said.

One of West’s plaintiffs was in that very situation. In January, Ebony Roberts was arrested for two outstanding traffic violations she got years ago. In a declaration she gave to the SPLC, Roberts claims she was speeding four years ago to visit her grandmother who was dying. On the way, she was pulled over and issued a citation for speeding and another citation for driving without a license. She said she didn’t pay them because she had no money, and in January she was arrested and spent a week in jail before her boyfriend could get enough money to get her out. In March, she pleaded guilty to both misdemeanor traffic charges, and Black ordered her to pay a fine plus the costs of the tickets, which came to $367.50 for the speeding ticket and $262.50 for not having a driver’s license. She said she was given until April 25 to pay.

Roberts said she lives with her boyfriend and her 2-year-old daughter and, although she has been looking for a job, has been unable to find one. So, she said, she borrowed $262.50 from her mother and on in April, she took that to court, intending to pay one ticket. She did not have money to pay any of the court costs or for the other ticket.

“Judge Black did not ask me whether I was working or why I could not pay,” she said, in her statement to the SPLC. “He did not offer me a payment plan or community service. He told me instead that I had to pay an additional $50 for an extension of time to pay the fines and costs or I would go to jail for not paying my traffic tickets.”

She paid the $50, but by June 13, her deadline to pay everything, she still didn’t have the $630 plus court costs. She said the judge asked her for another $50 fee and threatened her with jail if she couldn’t pay that.

“Judge Black did not give me an opportunity to tell him that I am unemployed, do not have any money, and am just trying to do my best to take care of my 2-year-old daughter,” she said.

West said the judicial process in Bogalusa does more than merely collect fines and assess guilt.

“There’s psychological trauma and there’s an effect of how the community feels about the court, whether the court is there to mete out justice or if it’s just there to extract money from them,” he said.

In the short term, West’s lawsuit seeks immediate relief in federal court to prevent his plaintiffs from going to jail for lack of payment. He expects a federal judge will make a ruling prior to July 25.

In addition, West also hopes the SPLC’s lawsuit will send a broader message to courtrooms across the state.

“I think that there’s a threefold goal,” West said. “One is, to end the debtors’ prison in Bogalusa and across the state and to communicate that what Judge Black was doing is wrong and unconstitutional.

“And, second, to end this extension fee that’s been put in place … and, the third, is to end this incentive for judges to extract money from poor people to fund the court.”