The bill provides that when a person fails to pay their fines and fees (whether for traffic, misdemeanor, or felony offenses), a clerk will provide written notice advising that failure to pay within the following 90 days will result in the court pursuing collection of the debt. Before this law was passed, courts suspended driver’s licenses for nonpayment.
This bill was proposed to enshrine Rule 26.6(b) of the Mississippi Rules of Criminal Procedure in state law. Its provisions are nearly identical: it mandates a determination of willfulness before a court may sanction a defendant for nonpayment of fines and fees, and provides alternatives for courts when failure to pay was not willful.
Following litigation by the ACLU, the MacArthur Justice Center, and the Southern Poverty Law Center challenging debtor’s prisons in Biloxi, Jackson, and Corinth, the Mississippi Supreme Court made two changes related to fines and fees in its Rules of Criminal Procedure.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety made a number of discretionary changes regarding driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines and fees -- they stopped suspending licenses for nonpayment, restored licenses, and waived the $100 reinstatement fee for those drivers.
This bench card was created as part of a 2016 settlement agreement in Kennedy v. Biloxi, an ACLU lawsuit against the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, where defendants could avoid incarceration only if they paid their fines and fees immediately, in full, with cash.
This case alleged that the City of Biloxi operated a debtor’s prison, routinely jailing indigent people who could not afford to pay fines and fees imposed in traffic and misdemeanor cases.
The City of Jackson routinely incarcerated people for failing to pay fines and fees without any inquiry as to their ability to pay.
Harrison County Jail was a modern day debtors’ prison. Officers went to predominantly African American neighborhoods arbitrarily checking people to see if they had paid their court fines and fees.
An indigent's equal protection rights are violated when defendants can avoid prosecution by paying a fine, without determining an individual’s ability to pay the fine.