Civil rights lawyers are using a new strategy to change a common court practice they say unfairly targets the poor, NPR reports. At issue is the way some courts issue arrest warrants for indigent people when they fall behind on paying court fees and fines owed for minor offenses like traffic tickets. Last year, an NPR investigation showed that courts in all states are requiring more of these payments. Now attorneys are aggressively suing cities, police and courts, forcing reform. Since September, lawsuits have been filed against New Orleans; Nashville, Biloxi and Jackson, Ms.; Benton County, Wa.; and Alexander City, Al. In the past year, lawyers have also won settlements that have forced courts to change practices in Montgomery, Al.; DeKalb County, Ga.; and St. Louis County, Mo.
Biloxi is the latest city to be sued. Nusrat Choudhury of the American Civil Liberties Union says the city runs an illegal “debtors’ prison” when it puts indigent people in jail without adequately trying to determine whether the person has the means to pay court fines and fees or without then offering adequate alternatives to pay off a fine, like being offered the chance to do community service. “We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi,” says city spokesman Vincent Creel. “The city of Biloxi treats all defendants fairly under the law.” Qumotria Kennedy, the lead plaintiff, was arrested for a stop sign violation and spent five nights in jail before she saw a judge on a charge of not paying a fine on an earlier traffic charge.