NEW ORLEANS – Hundreds of people have been locked up because they failed to pay court fees, leading to an unconstitutional 'debtor's prison' in the city, a lawsuit filed Thursday said.
The federal suit said thousands of people are threatened with arrest each year for nonpayment of court debts and hundreds who have not paid over the past several years have been jailed without having a hearing on whether they are able to pay.
The lawsuit lists six people who say they have been locked up for owing court debts and it seeks unspecified compensation for the alleged victims and class-action status on behalf of all affected. The suit names the city's sheriff and nine judges as defendants.
The sheriff's office and court officials did not immediately respond to calls and emails for comment.
The lawsuit says New Orleans criminal justice officials "routinely use jail and threats of jail to collect court debts from thousands of the city's poorest people," according to the suit, filed by New Orleans-based civil rights attorney William Quigley and others.
"The result is an illegal, unconstitutional and unjust modern debtors' prison," the lawsuit alleges, citing a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that a person cannot be imprisoned solely for the inability to pay a fine or restitution.
Ashton Brown, 21, had court fees arising from a conviction in a 2013 theft case and a later drug possession case. After the drug case was resolved, he was returned to jail because of his prior unpaid debts, and he languished there for weeks until his family could scrape together a $100 payment, the lawsuit said.
Reynaud Variste is alleged to have been taken from his home in a night time raid by armed police who pointed guns at him and his family. The only reason he was arrested and jailed, according to the suit: He had over $1,600 in court costs and fees.
The lawsuit said an Orleans Parish Criminal Court Collections Department issues warrants of questionable legality — collection agents allegedly sign the names of judges — instead of informing a debtor of a court date or issuing a summons.
The lawsuit seeks a federal judge's declaration that the plaintiffs were arrested on illegal warrants, violating their constitutional rights, and an award of an unspecified amount to compensate those arrested for damages they suffered.