DENVER – The Wheat Ridge Municipal Court violated a recently-enacted Colorado law banning debtor’s prison practices by sentencing a homeless man to jail because he could not pay a fine, according to a filing this morning by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Wilburn Taylor was cited for panhandling when a Wheat Ridge police officer found him with a blank cardboard and a pen, intending to make a sign requesting charity from passing motorists. Taylor appeared before Municipal Court Judge Christopher Randall, pleaded guilty and was assessed a $100 fine. He explained to the court that he was destitute, jobless, and could not pay. Despite that, Judge Randall told Taylor that he would have to pay the fine by a specific date or a warrant would issue for his arrest.
Over the following months, Taylor, who remained homeless and destitute, was arrested and brought to court two more times, with the debt increasing each time. Finally, after the debt had nearly tripled to $275, Judge Randall cited Taylor for “contempt of court” for failing to pay and sentenced him to three days in jail.
“Mr. Taylor was wrongly found in contempt of court for failing to pay a fine that he could not pay,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Colorado law is clear: a conviction for contempt is appropriate only if a defendant has the ability to pay and willfully refuses to do so. In this case, Judge Randall found our client guilty of contempt and sentenced him to jail without any inquiry into his ability to pay. Indeed, the record showed that our client was homeless, unemployed, impoverished, and had no means to pay the fine.”
The Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to jail an individual for failing to pay a debt that he is too poor to pay. Nevertheless, a 2013 ACLU of Colorado investigation revealed that municipal courts around the state were regularly doing just that. During the 2014 legislative session, in response to the ACLU investigation, the Colorado legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 14-1061, a new state law that mandates due process protections to prevent courts from jailing individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees.
According to the ACLU’s motion, which was filed in the Wheat Ridge Municipal Court by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Ty Gee, the court violated several provisions of the Colorado statute as well as the Constitution, and, therefore, Taylor’s conviction for contempt of court should be vacated.
Read the ACLU filing, which includes transcripts from Wilburn Taylor’s court appearances: http://static.aclu-co.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/2015-08-25-Mot-to-Vacate-Judgment.pdf
Learn more about the 2013 ACLU of Colorado investigation into debtor’s prison practices in Colorado: https://aclu-co.org/court-cases/debtors-prisons/
Visit the ACLU of Colorado’s End Debtor’s Prisons Campaign Page: https://aclu-co.org/campaigns/end-debtors-prisons/