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Jul 06, 2015

February 9, 2015 3:03 pm·  countercurrentnews

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“Anytime I go outside, I fear that I’ll be stopped by the police,” Allison Nelson said from her family’s home in Jennings, Missouri. Jennings, along with Ferguson, are being sued for issuing unreasonable traffic fines and related jail time that amount to “debtors prison.”

Allison’s brother, Herbert Nelson Jr. says that as the traffic tickets piled up, from the moment he turned 18, so did the warrants, since he was unable to pay the excessive fines attached to them.

“I’ve been trying to imagine a way out of this for years,” Mr. Nelson said. Nearly every charge against him stems from traffic tickets and an inability to pay them.

“Something has to happen where you separate minor cases from serious cases. You can’t keep treating normal people with traffic tickets like felons.

“I live a normal life,” he added. “I have a son. I’m not a bad person. I just don’t have money to pay for all this.”

Nelson, along with 14 other St. Louis area residents just filed two lawsuits on Sunday evening. One of those is against the City of Ferguson and the other against Jennings, another suburb of St. Louis.

Both class-action suits have been filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, and each alleges that the suburbs in question have set up a system where the poor cannot help but go to prison. They’re calling the situation “unconstitutional” and a “modern-day debtors’ prison.”

City officials in both Ferguson and Jennings have so far refused to comment on the lawsuits.

“I understand the frustration from the defendants,” John Adams, the court administrator for the Jennings municipal division tried to sympathize.

He weighed in last Friday, but had not yet seen the lawsuits yet.

“At the same time, the defendants should be responsible and take the step of at least showing up in court. It would resolve so many issues.”

That sounds nice, but for poor people who do not have money to pay court fees, that amounts to surrendering to the local jail. Without the ability to pay the fines the court would levee against them, they would be taken into custody.

Allison Nelson, explained it like this: “You drive to work so you can pay the fines, but then you get pulled over, so you owe even more.”

The suit has legal ground in that Missouri law prohibits municipalities from taking in more than 30% of their general operating budgets through traffic fines. These two cities, the suit alleges, have violated that.

Roelif Carter, 62, has been arrested three times on warrants for such fines. One time was for a dog leash violation, which got her slapped with “resisting arrest” on top of that, a charge which she denies has any basis in fact.

Keilee Fant, 37, a nursing assistant with nine children who is a plaintiff in both lawsuits, recalls what it was like in jail for not paying a fine: “I was bouncing from place to place, and all I could think was: ‘Wait, I’m in here for traffic. I haven’t killed anybody,’ ”

“If I don’t have any money, they send me to jail, so why is it so important to show up if you’re going to send me back to jail?” she said. “All I want is my license back. My license and my life.”

The plaintiffs are being represented by the Equal Justice Under Law nonprofit civil rights organization in Washington; as well as ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit group in St. Louis; and the St. Louis University Law School.

Roelif Carter, a 62 year old plaintiff in the suit has also been slapped with “resisting arrest” for failing to pay fines on parking tickets and a dog leash.

“It’s the same old thing, just a different day,” Mr. Carter, who is unemployed, said. “It’s making me feel like you can’t trust them. There’s no way you could work off the anger.”

(Article by Jackson Marciana)

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