Debtor’s prison, the very words conjure up images of Charles Dickens’ melodramatic novels of the England 150 years ago or more,– of people trapped, their lives wasting away in jail, locked up simply because they lacked the money to pay some fee, fine or judgment.
If the idea sounds completely un-American, well, it should. It has been since 1868, 2 years before the muck-raking Dickens died. That’s when the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution went into effect, granting equal protection to rich and poor from the threat of being imprisoned for no other cause but poverty.
As is typical with American law, even American Constitutional law, adjustments can be made, so that, for example, someone can be jailed for failure to pay child support. Why? Because what’s at stake is not just money, but disrespect for a court order.
But there are court orders and there are court orders. Enforcing the economic rights of children is one thing, enforcing traffic fines is another. On this, there is a pretty broad American legal consensus, so that, for example, when a municipal judge in Bowden, Georgia was recorded threatening to issue an arrest warrant for a motorist who didn’t pay his fine in full, in cash, right away, the state shut his courtroom and sent him off for a course in remedial judging.
State law in Texas says the same thing: traffic offenses are not a predicate for jail. Well, tell that to the good folks in Santa Fe, TX (not NM, by golly) Santa Fe, TX, where tossing people in jail for unpaid traffic fines is just the beginning of a plan to cut the town’s $636,000 budget deficit.
Again, according to Texas State law, proper procedure, before imposing a fine is an inquiry into the defendant’s ability to pay. If a poverty claim is made, a hearing is to be held to see if the defendant is entitled to relief. Records show, defendants do better in those hearings if they have a lawyer.
In Santa Fe, according to a lawsuit recently filed by the Texas ACLU, Judge Carleton Getty almost never asks whether his traffic court defendants can afford his fine, and almost never grants a hearing or ask another judge to rule on a poverty claim. And, it says right there in the Santa Fe, TX official website, in Judge Getty’s court, “No attorney will be appointed for you.”
Texas is indeed a legal wonderland, and all Texans are potential Alices, susceptible to falling down that rabbit hole in the court of some Mad Cowboy- Hatter where justice is a matter of dollars and nonsense.
I found out about most of this by reading a fine article in Texas Observer magazine by our guest today, reporter Patrick Michels.
Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent.