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.
Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal asserting absolute immunity, and the plaintiffs moved to dismiss the appeal because the court lacks jurisdiction under the collateral order doctrine.
The court denied defendants’ motion for reconsideration, 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 January 23, 2019, the court dismissed the appeal. 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. Because the Court did not conclusively resolve the issue, the appeal was dismissed by the Fourth Circuit.
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.
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.