Kyle Dewitt spent three days in jail because he was too poor to pay a fishing fine. Last spring, Dewitt was ticketed and fined $215 for fishing smallmouth bass out of season (Dewitt disputes the charge).
But Dewitt, 19 years old with a fiancée and a nine-month-old son, lost his job at a grocery store in 2010 and has been out of work ever since. He couldn’t afford the $215 fine. Instead he offered to pay $100 up front, and repay the rest in a month. But Judge Raymond Voet of Ionia, Mich., refused. The judge sentenced Dewitt to three days in jail.
The American Civil Liberties Union paid to break Dewitt out. Now the group is suing on behalf of Dewitt and four others in Michigan who were jailed because they were too poor to pay misdemeanor fines.
“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU, said in a press release. “Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources.”
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Using a rule called “pay or stay,” judges in Michigan can decide to keep people in jail who have been found guilty of misdemeanors but who cannot afford to pay their fines. (Dewitt’s case is an anomaly, since he says he wasn’t fishing out of season, and he was never found guilty by a jury.) Other cases involving the ACLU include:
- Kristen Preston, 19, was unable to pay a $125 fine for underage drinking. Judge Voet sentenced her to 30 days in jail.
- Dontae Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended license and was ordered to pay $415 in fines. Smith was given an hour to call friends and relatives, but was unable to raise the money, so Judge Joseph Longo of Ferndale, Mich., sentenced him to 41 days in jail.
- David Clark, 30, was ordered to complete a six-week parenting class and pay a $1,250 fine for spanking his girlfriend’s child. Clark took the class, but he couldn’t afford the fine as a part-time grocery store worker who brings home $150 a week. So Judge Randy Kalmbach of Wyandotte, Mich., sentenced him to 90 days in jail.
- Dorian Bellinger, 22, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession and couldn’t afford the $425 in fees, so Judge Robert B. Brzezinski of Livonia, Mich., sentenced him to 13 days in jail.
The ACLU is representing all five people, arguing that the cases represent a modern-day debtors’ prison. Congress banned the practice of imprisoning people for unpaid debts in 1833; in the ensuing decades, most states followed with similar laws.
“These modern-day debtors’ prisons impose devastating human costs, waste taxpayer money and create a two-tiered justice system,” Elora Mukherjee, staff attorney with the ACLU’s racial justice program, said in a press release.
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