TMLG and ACLU Challenge Unconstitutional Debtors’ Prison Practices in South Carolina County
In Lexington County, people who can’t afford court fines for traffic and other low-level offenses go to jail, without consideration of their finances and without legal representation
COLUMBIA — In the latest pushback against modern-day debtors’ prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina, and Terrell Marshall Law Group PLLC filed a class-action lawsuit today challenging the illegal arrest and incarceration of poor people in Lexington County, South Carolina. Victims are arrested on warrants and incarcerated when they cannot afford to pay fines for traffic and other misdemeanor offenses. They remain in jail for weeks to months without seeing a judge, having a court hearing, or receiving help from a lawyer.
“I was locked up for 57 days because I couldn’t pay my traffic fines,” said plaintiff Twanda Marshinda Brown, a single mother who lives with her children in Section 8 housing. Brown was working at a fast food restaurant and made payments toward her fines, but when she fell behind, she was arrested and incarcerated. “It was devastating for me and my kids.”
Each year in Lexington County, hundreds of impoverished people go to jail because they can’t afford the fines and fees set by the county’s magistrate courts in traffic and other misdemeanor cases. The ACLU’s review of court records found that more than a thousand people in the last calendar year were at risk of being jailed for nonpayment of fines and fees owed to Lexington County magistrate courts.
“Lexington County is home to a modern-day debtors’ prison, with some of the longest jail terms we’ve seen across the country,” said Nusrat Choudhury, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “People who can afford to pay buy their freedom, while poor people are imprisoned, causing their families to suffer, their jobs to disappear, and their chances of escaping poverty to become even more remote.”
Cayeshia Johnson, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, was jailed in Lexington County for 55 days because she couldn’t pay $1,287.50 in court fines. Plaintiff Xavier Goodwin was jailed for 63 days over $1,710 in traffic tickets. Goodwin still owes fines and fees to a Lexington County magistrate court and fears he will again be arrested and incarcerated because he can’t afford to pay.
Lexington County collects revenue for its General Fund from fines and fees in traffic and criminal cases handled by magistrate courts.
“The poverty rate in Lexington County has risen over the past several years, yet officials still use the poorest of the poor as a source of revenue,” said Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “People of color in Lexington County suffer disproportionately when courts use debtors’ prison practices and ignore individuals’ financial realities.”
The poverty rates for Black and Latino residents of Lexington County are more than double the rate for white residents.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that jailing people only because they can’t afford to pay court fines violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The court made clear that judges can’t jail someone for failure to pay without first considering their ability to pay, efforts to acquire money, and alternatives to incarceration.
“Around the country, courts are recognizing the injustices inherent in debtors’ prison practices and undergoing reforms. Officials in Lexington County should do the same,” said Toby Marshall, founding member of the Terrell Marshall Law Group.
The complaint, Brown v. Lexington County, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina. It cites violations of the Fourth and Sixth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution in addition to the 14th.
For the complaint and more information about the lawsuit:
For information about the ACLU:
For information about the ACLU of South Carolina: