Cleveland v. City of Montgomery et al. & Watts v. City of Montgomery et al

Plaintiff, Harriet Cleveland was unemployed, could not afford car insurance, and received several tickets. Her driver’s license was suspended, and she incurred additional tickets for driving without a license. Cleveland was ordered to make monthly payments to Judicial Correction Services (JCS), a private probation company.  She paid $200 monthly, of which $40 went to JCS. Cleveland was arrested for failure to pay the fines and fees associated with the traffic tickets. Without any inquiry as to her ability to pay, the judge ordered her to pay $1554.00 or complete a 31 day jail sentence. Unable to pay, she was sent to jail. The fines and fees imposed fund the court, the municipal jail and the general fund expenses of the City of Montgomery.

Plaintiff, Watts, 22 years old was shot in the face and unable to work. After fines and fees were imposed for traffic tickets and misdemeanor charges, he was ordered to pay $1800 immediately or spend 54 days in jail, credited toward his debt at rate of $50 a day. No inquiry was made as to his ability to pay, and because he was unable to pay, he served the 54-day sentence.

Neither of the plaintiffs were informed of their right to counsel.


The cases were joined. In November 2014, the parties were able to reach a settlement agreement with the City. The settlement included:

  • No person shall be incarcerated for their inability to pay fines and fees.
  • The court record must explain a determination of that a person is not indigen
  • No person unable to pay fines and fees will be charged an additional fee for being placed on a payment plan.
  • The City of Montgomery ended its contract with the JSC program.

You can find a detailed summary and case documents via Southern Poverty Law Center.

42 U.S.C. § 1983 (alleging due process and equal protection violations)
No. 2:13-cv-00732 (M.D. Al. 2013) and No. 2:13-cv-00733 (M.D. Ala. 2013)
November 2013
Southern Poverty Law Center and Equal Justice Under Law