This case alleges that Lexington County operates a modern-day debtors’ prison pursuant to a Default Payment Policy and a Trial in Abstentia Policy. If they are present in court, indigent persons who are unable to pay court fines and fees in full at the time of sentencing are given a payment plan with steep monthly payments. Failure to make a payment results in a bench warrant unless the full amount owed is paid. Defendants are never asked about their ability to pay. Under the Trial in Abstentia policy, magistrate courts routinely ignore requests for continuances, try the case without the defendant present, impose a conviction and sentence the defendant to jail suspended on the payment of the fines and fees imposed. Without informing the defendant of the decision, the court issues a bench warrant ordering law enforcement to arrest and jail the individual unless the full amount owed is paid before booking. In addition, defendants are never informed of their right to counsel. The County issued 204 bench warrants, charging at least 183 people with nonpayment of fines and fees between February 1, 2017 and March 31, 2017.
On March 29, 2018, the District Court issued an order declining to adopt the Magistrate’s Report and Recommendation, denying plaintiffs’ motion to certify the class, denying defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment as to declaratory and injunctive relief, and denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The District Court found genuine issues of material fact on the asserted immunities and ordered the matter to proceed to discovery. The District Court further stated that the defendant’s immunity will depend on a fact-intensive inquiry of the record developed through discovery. The defendants moved for reconsideration. The court denied the motion, finding that because a plaintiff still had a criminal action pending, his claims for injunctive and declaratory relief were not moot. Further, the claims were not barred by the Younger abstention doctrine. The supplementation motion for reconsideration was also denied.
On April 26, 2018, Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal asserting absolute immunity. Plaintiffs moved to dismiss the appeal, asserting that the court lacked jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine. On January 23, 2019, the Fourth Circuit dismissed the appeal.
On March 29, 2019, plaintiffs’ second motion to certify the class was denied without prejudice but with leave to refile after a report from the Magistrate Judge indicating that mediation had concluded.
On May 20, 2020, the court denied Dr. Marie Assa’ad-Faltas’ motion to intervene and be declared a state-wide class representative. Dr. Faltas averred that she was at risk of a 30-day incarceration in a South Carolina short-term detention facility because she was charged with violating a City of Columbia ordinance for allegedly failing to clean her property, and that she would be at risk of contracting COVID-19 in the facility if incarcerated. The court determined, inter alia, that Dr. Faltas did not show that she had an interest in the subject matter of the litigation because she only alleged that she might one day get arrested in Lexington County, not that she was currently facing the possibility of incarceration in the Lexington County Detention Center. Moreover, the court concluded that unlike the proposed class Plaintiffs, Dr. Faltas did not currently owe nor would she owe in the future any fines or fees in connection to her case. On June 18, 2020, the court denied Dr. Faltas’ motion for reconsideration. On June 19, 2020, Dr. Faltas filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit as well as a motion to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal. On July 22, 2020, the court granted Dr. Faltas’ motion to proceed in forma pauperis on appeal. The matter is pending before the Fourth Circuit.
On December 13, 2022, after five years of litigation, Lexington County Council members unanimously voted to settle the lawsuit initially brought in 2017 by the ACLU of South Carolina. The lawsuit shed light on the South Carolina magistrate courts’ regular practice of arresting and jailing individuals for the nonpayment of fines and fees without providing a court hearing on ability to pay, notice of the right to counsel, or appointment of counsel to stave off incarceration. The absence of these rights and access to counsel created what the ACLU dubbed a “two-tiered system of justice,” where those who could afford to pay fines and fees went free and those who could not ended up in jail. The settlement, once approved, will require South Carolina magistrate courts to make substantial improvements to its public defense services in order to meaningfully serve individuals facing prosecution for misdemeanor and traffic charges.
You can find a detailed summary and case documents via the Civil Rights Litigation Clearinghouse (as of October 10, 2019, U. of Mich. Clearinghouse summary only current through June 13, 2018). You can also read more about the plaintiffs: Amy Marie Palacios, Nora Ann Corder.