DENVER – The Colorado Springs Municipal Court is routinely violating the United States Constitution and state law by jailing hundreds of people because they are too poor to pay court-ordered fines and fees, according to an ACLU letter sent to the City Attorney and the Municipal Court this morning.
An ACLU investigation uncovered more than 800 times since January 2014 where the Court imposed a fine for a violation of a municipal ordinance and then converted the fine into what court documents label a “pay or serve” sentence. A “pay or serve” sentence orders a defendant to either pay the amount due or serve time in jail at a rate of $50 a day. These sentences resulted in hundreds of impoverished people spending days, weeks, and even months in jail in direct violation of 40 years of U.S. Supreme Court precedent, as well as a 2014 state law banning debtors’ prison practices.
“As the Supreme Court clearly explained more than forty years ago, the Constitution prohibits imposing a fine as a sentence and then converting it into a jail term solely because the defendant has no money and cannot pay,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Yet, in hundreds of cases since January 2014, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court has done just that by sentencing poor people to jail to pay off their fines at a rate of $50 a day.”
In 75% of the “pay or serve” sentences, defendants were jailed for non-jailable offenses – violations that the Colorado Springs Municipal Code identifies as punishable by only a fine and never by jail. For example, solicitation near streets or highways and violations of park curfew are non-jailable offenses punishable by, at most, a $500 fine. Yet, since January 2014, the Colorado Springs Municipal Court has imposed over 200 “pay or serve” sentences for violation of the solicitation ordinance, and over 65 “pay or serve” sentences for park hours violations.
“For penniless defendants, pay or serve is not a choice; it is a sentence to jail,” Silverstein said. “When the City’s ordinance provides that a fine is the appropriate penalty, the Constitution forbids jailing a person solely because he is too poor to pay. Debtors’ prisons were outlawed in this country long ago, but they are alive and well in Colorado Springs.”
In some cases, the Court imposed multiple consecutive jail sentences on defendants who had more than one non-jailable citation. In one case highlighted by the ACLU, a 45-year-old homeless man was imprisoned for more than 90 days for panhandling, an offense for which the maximum punishment is a $500 fine, not jail. The ACLU noted that each of this man’s multiple citations shows that he was merely displaying a sign inviting donations, conduct that does not violate the panhandling ordinance. Nevertheless, the man served 26 consecutive “pay or serve” sentences, ranging from 1 to 10 days, in jail at a total cost to the taxpayer of more than $5,000.
“Incarcerating the poor for their inability to pay creates a two-tiered system of justice in which the poorest defendants are punished more harshly than the ones with means. Defendants who can write a check move on with their lives. Those unable to pay are imprisoned,” said ACLU of Colorado Staff Attorney Rebecca T. Wallace. “In a system committed to equal justice for all, accountability cannot mean that people of means pay fines, while the poor go to jail.”
In 2014, in response to an earlier ACLU investigation, the Colorado legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 14-1061, which mandates specific due process protections to prevent courts from jailing individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees. The ACLU’s letter today asserts that Colorado Springs is violating the Colorado statute as well as the Constitution.
The ACLU of Colorado is calling on Colorado Springs to immediately stop jailing people because they are too poor to pay their fines or court fees, and to provide compensation to individuals who were jailed because of their poverty.
Read the ACLU of Colorado letter: https://aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/2015-10-22-Massey-Silverstein-Wallace-pay-or-serve.pdf