- Associated Press - Friday, April 22, 2016

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A federal judge has cleared the way for a trial in a lawsuit that claims New Orleans’ criminal court functions as an unconstitutional “debtors’ prison” for jailing people who cannot afford to pay court fees.

Late Thursday, U.S. District Judge Sarah S. Vance in New Orleans ruled that the lawsuit belongs in federal court. Vance shot down an attempt by state district judges to throw the case out. The ruling clears the way for an August trial.

The lawsuit, filed in September, says the criminal 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.

“We are a very poor city and the constitution does not allow our judges to throw people in jail just because they are poor,” Bill Quigley, a New Orleans attorney working on the lawsuit with the organization Equal Justice Under Law, wrote in an email Friday.

The suit was filed by six plaintiffs who say they were unconstitutionally jailed at one time or another for owing court debts.

Quigley said the fees amount to about $100 a month and payment can last for years.

“This is a lot if you live under the poverty guidelines which 27 percent of the people in New Orleans do,” Quigley said.

He said the plaintiffs want the courts to change the system, perhaps by lowering payments to $25 a month or making community service an option.

The plaintiffs want a federal court to rule that they were arrested on illegal warrants violating their constitutional rights, and they want an unspecified amount to compensate them for damages they suffered.

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

A lawyer for the defendants did not immediately return a message seeking comment Friday.

The defendants haven’t publicly commented but the local judges have said in court filings 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 have said in court documents that 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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