The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Michigan are challenging “pay or stay” sentences on behalf of five people who were illegally jailed for being too poor to pay court fines.

In each instance, the judge failed to hold a hearing that would prove the individual was too poor to pay, or give the defendant the option of a payment plan or community service. Read our client's stories and view court documents below.

Dorian Bellinger, 22, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge on July 27, 2011. The next day, he was sentenced by Judge Robert B. Brzezinski of the 16th District Court in Livonia, Mich. to 12 months of probation and was ordered to immediately pay $425 in fees, fines and costs or face 13 days in jail for being poor.

Although Dorian works as a roof-and-gutter repairer, he does not earn enough to pay his fines in one lump sum. During the hearing, Judge Brzezinski did not ask any questions to determine Dorian’s ability to pay or whether a payment plan would be more appropriate.

Since he was originally picked up for this crime last year, Dorian has attended a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and has been consistently employed. Dorian takes responsibility for his actions and would like the opportunity to pay his fines overtime or through community service.

Dorian has been in jail for being poor since July 27, 2011.

The ACLU filed an emergency appeal on his behalf today arguing that it is unconstitutional to jail Dorian because he can’t afford to pay fines, fees and costs to the court. Dorian is currently serving his time at the Isabella County Jail.

Read the ACLU’s motion for leave to appeal

Kyle Dewitt, 19, was fishing for rock bass in May when he was ticketed for allegedly catching a small-mouth bass out of season by the Department of Natural Resources.

At the time of the incident, it was legal to fish for rock bass, but the season for small-mouth bass had not yet opened. Kyle lost his job in 2010 and has had difficulty finding other work. He has no source of income and unsuccessfully attempted to do odd jobs around the neighborhood to pay the ticket.

Subsequently, a bench warrant for his arrest was issued and Kyle turned himself in on July 25, 2011. During an August 2, 2011 hearing, Kyle was ordered by Judge Raymond Voet of the 64A District Court in Ionia, Mich. to pay $215 by 5 p.m. or face 3 days in jail.

Although Kyle offered to make $100 the next day and the remainder next month, the judge refused that offer and he was jailed.

During an emergency hearing yesterday, an ACLU attorney argued that it was unconstitutional for Kyle to be sentenced to jail for being poor. In a bizarre turn of events, it was also revealed that Kyle had not pleaded guilty to the offense and therefore should not have been jailed before a jury was able to hear his case.

The judge released Kyle yesterday pending a trial for the underlying offense of catching a fish out of season.

Read the ACLU’s motion for bond pending appeal

Kristen Preston,19, was ticketed for underage drinking at a party and ordered to pay $125.00 for an alcohol assessment at Northpoint Counseling Services.

When she arrived at the center, she explained that she did not have the money for the assessment. She was recently evicted from her home after losing her factory job.

She was told by a counselor that she had until 3 p.m. to pay for the assessment or the counseling service would count it as a failure to appear. Kristen inquired about a payment plan, but was told that a payment plan was not an option.

At a hearing on August, 1, 2011, Kristen was held in contempt by Judge Raymond Voet of the 64A District Court in Ionia, Mich. for being too poor to pay for the assessment and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

During an emergency hearing yesterday, an ACLU attorney argued that it was unconstitutional to jail Kristen because she is poor and couldn’t afford an assessment. As a result of the hearing, the judge released Kristen from jail. She was given more time to perform an alcohol assessment.. She awaits sentencing for the minor in possession charge.

Read the ACLU’s motion for bond pending appeal

Dontae Smith,19, lives in Detroit and has plans of joining the National Guard. He recently obtained his GED and has tried to find work unsuccessfully.

On August 2, 2011, he pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended license and impeding traffic and was ordered by Judge Joseph Longo 43rd District Court in Ferndale to pay $415 in costs and fines or face 41 days in jail.

Dontae, who is unemployed, attempted to tell the court that he has no source of income. The court gave him about an hour to come up with the money.

He called several friends and family members but was unable to borrow the full amount by the deadline and was sent to jail that evening for being poor.

The ACLU is challenging his pay or stay sentence. Dontae is currently serving his 41 days in Oakland County Jail.

Read the ACLU’s motion for bond pending appeal

David Clark, 30, lives with his girlfriend and her four children, whom he helps support.

In February 2011, David and his girlfriend spanked one of the kids on his buttock. The following day, the child’s grandmother noticed a red mark on the child’s buttock. She called Child Protective Services (CPS) and the police.

David and his girlfriend explained the circumstances to CPS and the police. CPS told them to take a six-week parenting class, which they completed successfully in March and April 2011. The police nonetheless informed them in May that they were filing charges.

Both pleaded no contest and were sentenced by Judge Randy Kalmbach of 27th District Court in Wyandotte, Mich. to 90 days in jail unless they could each immediately pay $1250 in fees and costs to the court.

David’s girlfriend was able to borrow the money from her parents and avoided the 90-day jail sentence. However, David, who worked part-time at Meijer and was bringing home only about $150 a week, could not afford to pay $1250 on the day he was sentenced.

The judge would not allow him to pay off the fees and costs over time, and he is now serving 90 days in jail for being poor.

Although David could have eventually paid these fees and costs if he had been given a payment plan, he is now likely to lose his job because he is in jail. The ACLU is challenging his pay or stay sentence.

Read the ACLU’s motion for bond pending appeal

Key News and Documents

August 4, 2011 | ACLU Challenges Debtors’ Prisons Across Michigan

More Info | ACLU Report: In for a Penny: The Rise of Modern Debtor's Prisons

More Info | Criminal Justice

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