- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Judges in New Orleans have agreed not to jail five people over their alleged failure to pay court fees - the latest development in a lawsuit that claims the judges preside over what amounts to an unconstitutional “debtors’ prison.”

The lawsuit, filed in September, says state district court judges in New Orleans routinely use jail or the threat of jail to collect court debts from poor people. The case, which is similar to lawsuits filed in several other states, also names the New Orleans Sheriff’s Office and the city government as defendants.

U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance has set an August 2016 trial date.

Lawyers for the five plan to ask the court for “class action” status. If granted, and if the plaintiffs eventually win, it would protect all New Orleans poor people who owe court fees from jail over failure to pay the debts.

Thursday’s agreement covers five of the six original plaintiffs. Bill Quigley, a New Orleans attorney working on the lawsuit with the organization Equal Justice Under Law, said the sixth defendant is not covered by the agreement because he doesn’t owe any money.

All six plaintiffs say they were unconstitutionally jailed at one time or another for owing court debts. They seek a federal court declaration that they were arrested on illegal warrants violating their constitutional rights, and an award of an unspecified amount to compensate them for damages they suffered.

“This is about people who don’t have enough money to pay, who have to choose between paying a fine and paying their light bill,” Quigley said. “Nobody should be in jail just because they are poor.”

Before the case comes to trial, Vance will have to sort through various issues, including arguments over whether she has jurisdiction. Local criminal justice officials say the case belongs in state court. The plaintiffs’ attorneys say the federal court has jurisdiction.

Defendants in the case haven’t publicly commented but, in court filings, the local judges say that none of the plaintiffs objected to their sentences when imposed, sought to change their sentences or raised constitutional claims in state court.

Attorneys defending city government said the city “supports the policies underlying Plaintiffs’ claims, namely reducing jail population and rejecting over incarceration of New Orleans citizens,” but noted that the city merely carries out the local judges’ orders.


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