BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - The America Civil Liberties Union filed a 73-page class-action lawsuit in federal court Wednesday, accusing the City of Biloxi of operating a modern-day debtor's prison.
The suit was on behalf of three plaintiffs who, the ACLU says, were arrested and jailed based on their inability to pay fines — a Constitutional violation.
Joseph Anderson of Biloxi, Qumotria Kennedy of D'Iberville and Richard Tillery are indigent, according to the lawsuit.
The lead attorney in the case, Nusrat Choudhury of New York, says the ACLU has been investigating debtor's prison cases in Mississippi for at least a year. The lawsuit against Biloxi is the third in the country.
Choudhury says of particular concern in the Biloxi case is the dramatic way in which her clients were arrested.
"The fact that they were jailed when sitting in their homes, at traffic stops on warrants and through a procedure in which they were taken straight to jail; booked in jail at the police station and taken to the jail itself and basically told that if they didn't pay in full and in cash the entire amount of the traffic tickets and other fines they owed that they would be jailed," noted Choudhury.
As a result, Choudhury said Kennedy, a 36-year-old mother of two teenagers, was fired from her part-time job while in jail.
Anderson was at home when police arrested him on a warrant, charging him with failure to pay a traffic fine.
"Being poor is not a crime," Choudhury said. "Yet, cities across the country, like Biloxi, appear to be generating revenue off the backs of the poor. This lawsuit seeks to dismantle a two-tiered system of justice that punishes the poorest more harshly than those with means."
The defendants named in the case include the City of Biloxi, Police Chief John Miller, City Judge James Steele and Judicial Correction Services, the private company contracted to collect fines.
Biloxi spokesperson Vincent Creel issued the following statement:
"The city of Biloxi has not yet been served with the lawsuit. ... We believe the ACLU is mistaken about the process in Biloxi, and we look forward to explaining it to the ACLU. The city of Biloxi treats all defendants fairly under the law. In fact, the court has used community service in cases where defendants are unable to pay their fines."
To view the lawsuit, click here: http://ftpcontent4.worldnow.com/wlox/BiloxiSuit.pdf