By Josh Mitchell
Corinth Today News Editor
The city of Corinth’s attorney and Municipal Court judge have offered little or no comments in response to a federal class action lawsuit that alleges violations of constitutional rights in regard to city court practices.
The city of Corinth and Municipal Court Judge John C. Ross are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Aberdeen.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit are that the Corinth Municipal Court illegally holds poor people in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail and fines and that the court does not hold timely hearings.
Corinth Mayor Tommy Irwin referred questions on the lawsuit to city attorney Wendell Trapp Jr. The city will gather information about the complaint so it can be in a position to respond, Trapp said Wednesday.
Judge Ross declined comment since it is active litigation and he is a defendant.
The Corinth Mayor and Board of Aldermen discussed the lawsuit in closed session Tuesday night.
The plaintiffs are Corinth residents Sammy Brown, 35, Brian Keith Powell, 28, and “all others similarly situated.” They are represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and The Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
The SPLC and the MacArthur Center have been investigating the Corinth Municipal Court’s practices over the last year.
“Despite being told repeatedly by the Mississippi Supreme Court and the Mississippi Judicial College to stop locking up Mississippians who are too poor to pay their fines in large lump sums and are not able to buy their way out of jail by paying a predetermined amount of money bail, a disturbing number of judges in Mississippi defiantly refuse to comply with the law,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center.
The lawsuit accuses the city of Corinth Municipal Court of “operating a modern-day debtors’ prison.” It alleges routine violations of Constitutional rights and says the Corinth Municipal Court jails poor people for the “inability to pay money bail and fines.”
“Even though debtors’ prisons have been outlawed in this country for more than 200 years, Corinth is running a jail from the Dark Ages in one of the nation’s poorest regions – it’s shameful,” said Sam Brooke, deputy legal director for the SPLC.
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.
“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.
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.
The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits jailing people just because they cannot afford to pay, the lawsuit says.
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.
For instance, Brown was arrested Dec. 1 for public intoxication, and his bail was set at $600. He will have to wait until Dec. 11 for a hearing “even though the Mississippi Rules of Criminal Procedure require an initial appearance within 48 hours of arrest for any person who is not released on their own recognizance,” the plaintiffs say.
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 to be held 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.
It also charges that Ross violated Howell’s rights under the Sixth and 14th Amendments by jailing him for “non-payment without appointing counsel or providing adequate alternative safeguards.”
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.
Lawyers with the SPLC and the MacArthur Justice Center also submitted a separate complaint about Judge Ross’ conduct to the Commission on Judicial Performance.