By Josh Mitchell
Corinth Today News Editor
A federal class action lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the city of Corinth Municipal Court of “operating a modern-day debtors’ prison.”
The lawsuit says the Corinth Municipal Court jails poor people for the “inability to pay money bail and fines.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen and alleges violations of Constitutional rights.
Corinth Mayor Tommy Irwin was not immediately available for comment Tuesday night. However, the Corinth Mayor and Board of Aldermen did discuss the suit in closed session Tuesday night.
Suspects arrested for misdemeanor charges will not be released from jail unless they pay a certain amount of money predetermined by a bail schedule, the lawsuit charges. There is no consideration given to the suspect’s ability to pay, it adds.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits jailing people just because they cannot afford to pay, the lawsuit says.
Furthermore, a person who has been arrested is not brought before a judicial officer until the next scheduled court date, and court is only held once a week, the suit says. This means a person could “languish in jail” for a week or more before he or she has the chance to ask the judge to review the monetary conditions of release, the lawsuit says.
Finally, when suspects are fined and adjudicated in court, they are required to pay the full fine or make a down payment, the lawsuit says. If they can’t pay, they are put back in jail and sit out their fines for $25 a day, the suit charges.
“Defendants operate this debtor’s prison in Corinth, Mississippi, where one out of every four people lives in poverty, nearly half of the population over 16 does not work, and the median household income is approximately half of the national median household income,” the lawsuit says.
The plaintiffs are Corinth residents Sammy Brown, Brian Keith Powell and “all others similarly situated.” They are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center and The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
The experiences of the plaintiffs, Brown and Powell, are “typical,” the lawsuit says.
Brown was arrested without a warrant Dec. 1 for public drunkenness and has been held in pretrial detention for more than 72 hours without an initial appearance or a judicial determination that there was probable cause for his arrest, the lawsuit says.
Furthermore, Brown has a learning disability, is unemployed and lives with his father. His only regular source of income is a disability check. The only reason he is still incarcerated is that he cannot afford to pay the $600 bail. He would be out now if he could pay.
Howell was arrested Nov. 27, and on Monday pleaded guilty to charges of no insurance, improper equipment and no driver’s license. He was ordered to pay a $1,005 fine or sit it out in jail at a rate of $25 per day, the lawsuit says.
“Mr. Howell is indigent, does not have steady employment, cannot afford to pay the fine and is wheelchair bound due to a vehicular accident a couple of years ago that resulted in his leg being amputated,” the lawsuit says.
Howell is incarcerated now because he can’t afford to pay the fine, and would be out immediately if he could pay. The city’s policies result in “systematic wealth-based detention in Corinth,” the lawsuit charges.
The plaintiffs seek a declaration that the city’s process is unlawful and an order that prevents the city from jailing people for misdemeanors and municipal offenses simply because they cannot pay an amount set by a secured bail schedule.
Brown and others in similar situations also seek a declaration that the city’s failure “to hold or seek prompt probable cause determinations for people arrested without a warrant violates the federal Constitution.”
The lawsuit also seeks an injunction to require probable cause hearings without unnecessary delay and within 48 hours for defendants arrested without a warrant. Failure to conduct timely probable cause hearings violates the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution that prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, the suit adds.
Finally, Howell and others seek a declaration that it is illegal to require people convicted of misdemeanors and municipal offenses to sit out their fines in jail without first appointing counsel and determining their ability to pay.