Hundreds of individuals were assessed fines by the Montgomery Municipal Court for misdemeanors, primarily traffic tickets like driving with a suspended license and other low-level crimes of poverty. When they could not pay their fines in full, they were sentenced to “probation” supervised by Judicial Correction Services (JCS), which had entered into a contract with the City to collect court debt. JCS’s debt collection system is “offender-funded,” meaning it is provided free of charge to the City, but that the probationers—people already too poor to pay a $200 ticket—were charged $40 per month in probation fees in addition to their fines. If they fell behind on payments, JCS petitioned to revoke their probation. Although the majority of the probationers had not been sentenced to jail time, the municipal court “commuted” their fines to days in jail at the rate of $50 per day until the debt was paid off, without ever determining whether the probationers’ ability to pay.
One of those individuals is Mr. Aldares Carter, who was sentenced to probation with JCS when he was unable to pay his traffic tickets. After missing probation appointments and failing to make payments, JCS petitioned the Municipal Court to revoke his probation. Without assessing his ability to pay, the Municipal Court “commuted” Mr. Carter’s fines to jail time and imprisoned him. He spent four days in the city jail. He “earned” $200 as a credit toward is fines and fees and was released when his mother borrowed money to pay the balance.
Mr. Carter brought suit against the City, JCS, and the public defender who represented him, alleging, inter alia, violations of the Due Process Clause, Fourth Amendment, Sixth Amendment, Eighth Amendment, and Equal Protection Clause, as well as false imprisonment.
The Court denied three of the Defendants’ motions for summary judgment, ruling that the Plaintiffs’ claims could move forward to trial. The court found that the case may proceed against all three of the Defendants. The court determined that a jury could find an established custom on this record because it sufficiently demonstrated a widespread pattern of unlawful incarceration, noting:
This case centers around a systemic practice in Montgomery: the unlawful incarceration of indigent defendants for failing to pay traffic fines. In filing revocation petitions, JCS fed the system. If among a single city’s probationers[,] 217 instances of a practice over less than four years would not allow a jury to find that a custom exists, the Court cannot imagine what would.
The court further explained:
JCS ran a business premised on the fact that many traffic offenders in Montgomery could not afford to pay their fines. They extracted as much cash as they could from probationers — some of whom they knew to be disabled, unemployed, or dependent on government benefits — and then tossed them back to the Municipal Court. That court, in turn, routinely jailed traffic offenders without inquiring into their ability to pay their fines. And if the City knew what was happening and did nothing to stop it, the City is liable as well. They cannot point the finger at the Municipal Court and feign innocence. For JCS and the City to walk out of the casino professing shock that gambling was occurring while pocketing millions in winnings beggars belief. Perhaps JCS and the City can convince a jury that they were powerless to stop and ignorant of the Municipal Court’s conduct. But the record strongly suggests that they knew that they were perpetuating a cycle of debt and unlawful imprisonment. And § 1983 provides a remedy for that kind of misbehavior.
The court ultimately found that because the Municipal Court made no inquiry into Mr. Carter’s ability to pay and sentenced him to jail without regard to his alleged indigency, the Municipal Court violated Mr. Carter’s Bearden rights, and that the City, JCS, and public defender could be found liable if a jury finds that they caused the Bearden violation.
Regarding Mr. Carter’s claim that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel because his lawyer was not present during the courtroom during his commutation hearing, the court found that Mr. Carter was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right, and that the City could also be found liable for failing to fulfill its obligation to provide adequate counsel for Carter and other municipal court defendants. With respect to his false imprisonment claim, the court found that it could proceed as it relates to his imprisonment following his commutation hearing. The court found that JCS’s request for Mr. Carter’s probation to be revoked was sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to conclude that JCS persuaded the Municipal Court to jail him, and that there was sufficient evidence that their petition was made in bad faith when JCS knew that Mr. Carter had not willfully failed to pay fines and fees. Finally, the court found that neither quasi-judicial immunity, nor qualified immunity, immunized any of the Defendants from suit.
The case remains pending before the district court.