Concerned that indigent defendants in the Detroit suburb of Eastpointe are being tossed into “debtors’ prison” for their inability to pay court fees and fines, the ACLU of Michigan today filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information related to Eastpointe law enforcement.
"Throwing people in jail because they lack the money to pay fines is unconstitutional and wrong,” said ACLU of Michigan legal fellow Sofia Nelson, one of the attorneys working in Eastpointe. “These ‘pay-or-stay’ sentences amount to criminalizing poor people because they are poor. In filing our request, we hope we can get a clearer understanding of police practices in Eastpointe. We’d like to know who is being policed, why and whether these practices have anything to do with the disturbing number of Eastpointe defendants who’ve been threatened with jail time because they can’t pay off fines for minor infractions.”
The FOIA request asks the City of Eastpointe to turn over public records pertaining to police practices, including:
- Copies of tickets issued in the last six months for various minor offenses
- Detailed Eastpointe budgetary information
- The racial demographics of the city’s police force
- Information on the number of warrants issued by the 38th District Court
The ACLU has been defending multiple Eastpointe residents over the past several months after a judge in the suburb’s 38th District Court sentenced them to jail time because the defendants lacked the ability to pay fines and court fees. The judge continued to hand out the pay-or-stay sentences even after the ACLU received a written decision from the Macomb County Circuit in March that deemed the sentences unconstitutional.
In July, the organization took the extraordinary step of filing a request for a writ of superintending control, asking that the Circuit Court directly prevent the 38th District Court from imposing the illegal jail sentences. The request for superintending control case is pending.
The ACLU filed the request for superintending control in support of Donna Anderson, an Eastpointe mom facing jail time because she lacked the money to pay off $455 in fees and fines related to a pet-ordinance infraction.
Shortly before the request, the group also went to 38th District Court on behalf of another Eastpointe resident who was ticketed for jaywalking in the suburb and later jailed because he couldn’t pay the $334 fine for the offense.