DETROIT—Concerned over potential civil-rights violations in the grisly death of Macomb County Jail inmate David Stojcevski, the ACLU of Michigan in a letter today urged US Department of Justice officials to investigate not only the fatality but also the unconstitutional “pay-or-stay” sentencing practices that landed Stojcevski in jail in the first place.

“As disturbing as Mr. Stojcevski’s maltreatment was, we are also saddened and outraged by the fact that he was thrown in jail for no other reason than he was too poor to pay a fine,” said ACLU of Michigan staff attorney Miriam Aukerman, who co-wrote the letter. “The Constitution deems these ‘pay-or-stay’ practices unlawful, meaning Mr. Stojcevski died needlessly in an illegal debtors’ prison.”

Stojcevski’s death captured national attention after the release of surveillance-camera video that showed the 32-year-old inmate writhing with violent seizures and gasping for breath while naked on the cement floor of his jail cell last year. None of his jailers ever came to his aid.

Although the FBI is investigating the death, the ACLU letter calls on the Justice Department to extend its investigation into why Stojcevski was behind bars. A judge sentenced Stojcevski to serve 30 days in prison after he was unable to pay $772 in fines stemming from two outstanding traffic tickets.

“Mr. Stojcevski’s death reflects not just an abysmal failure of the Macomb County Jail to address his medical needs, but also the fact that Michigan has a two-tier system of justice,” the letter reads. “If Mr. Stojcevski had been wealthy, he could have paid the $772 and gone home. Because he was poor, he ended up in jail, where he died.

“’Pay or stay’ sentences are unconstitutional when they result in harsher punishment – that is, incarceration – for defendants who lack the ability to pay.”

The ACLU of Michigan has fought against pay-or-stay sentencing for years, noting that it’s illegal to jail someone for not paying fines and fees without first determining the defendant’s ability to pay. Earlier this year, the organization filed a motion asking the Macomb County Circuit Court to intervene in 38th District Court in Eastpointe, Mich., after the judge there refused to stop handing down “pay-or-stay” sentences without first ascertaiing defendants' financial capacity.

The judge had continued the practice even after the State Court Administrative Office issued a report in April that reaffirmed that it is against the law to jail people who are too poor to pay fines and other court costs.

The request for intervention in 38th District Court came during the ACLU’s successful defense in July of Eastpointe resident Donna Anderson, who was facing a pay-or-stay sentence related to $455 in fines and fees for a dog-license infraction.