The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Thursday announced that it has filed a federal lawsuit challenging the debt collection practices of an Atlanta-area county and the debt collection agency it uses to recover court fines and probation fees.
The suit was brought on behalf of Kevin Thompson, a teenager in DeKalb County, Ga., who was jailed because he could not afford to pay fines and fees stemming from a traffic ticket. The case, Thompson v. DeKalb County, was filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. It names DeKalb County, Chief Judge Nelly Withers of the DeKalb County Recorders Court, and Judicial Correction Services, Inc. as defendants.
Thompson’s license was suspended after failing to appear in court in April 2014 for what the complaint says was a minor traffic violation. He resolved that issue, but forgot to file the proper paperwork to get his license reinstated. In July, he was pulled over by a DeKalb County police officer who informed him that his license was suspended. As such, he was arrested for driving on a suspended license. He spent one night in jail.
In October, he appeared in court and pled guilty to driving on a suspended license. His sentence was an $810 fine that he could not pay that day. The judge said that he had 30 days to pay the fine, during which time he would be on probation and would have to report to a private probation firm, Judicial Correction Services (JCS).
Thompson reported to JCS every week and paid small amounts against his debt. On December 4, 2014, he reported but could not pay. At that point, JCS initiated a revocation of probation and filed it with the court. The suit claims that JCS incorrectly advised Thompson that a public defender would cost an additional $150, so he waived his right to defense.
On December 8, he was sentenced to 10 days in jail, with one day removed for time already served. He ended up spending five days in jail.
The ACLU suit seeks damages from the county and JCS. It also wants to shine a light on debt collection practices used by local government counties and the private ARM businesses they employ to force people into paying fines and fees against the real threat of jail time.