Missouri Town Sued for Running Modern Day Debtors’ Prison

A weekly news service that publishes case summaries of the most recent important bankruptcy-law decisions, tracks major commercial bankruptcies, and reports on developments in bankruptcy reform in...

By Daniel Gill

Nov. 4 — Five named plaintiffs have sued the City of Florissant, Mo., for operating an illegal de facto debtors’ prison ( Baker et al. v. City of Florissant , E.D. Mo., No. 4:16-cv-01693, Complaint 10/31/16 ).

The class action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri alleges violations of civil rights under the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, and pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 and 28 U.S.C. §2201 et seq.

According to the complaint, Florissant, the most populous municipality in St. Louis County, routinely and systematically imprisons indigent persons who can’t afford to pay civil fines, such as for simple traffic violations. The courts don’t provide legal counsel or inquire as to whether the defendants have the ability to pay such fines before incarcerating them, as required by the Constitution, the complaint alleges.

The imprisonment scheme “isn’t about public safety; it’s about money,” plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas Harvey told Bloomberg BNA in a statement Nov. 4. Harvey is the Executive Director and co-founder of ArchCity Defenders, a “non-profit civil rights law firm providing holistic legal advocacy and combating the criminalization of poverty and state violence against poor people and people of color,” as the firm describes itself on its website.

“People are being stopped because they are black and exploited because they are poor,” Harvey said. “This lawsuit is a response and represents a challenge to the unlawful practices of police departments and the municipal courts that create and exacerbate poverty in order to generate revenue and exert social control.”

The complaint further alleges that the plaintiffs’ rights are violated by the horrific state of the prisons in which they are incarcerated, sometimes for simply failing to pay a $300 traffic fine.

“The basic scheme of the City of Florissant is to extort—through the threat of physical confinement—money from debtors who are otherwise unable to afford to pay both the basic necessities of life and their debts to the City,” the complaint alleges.

It describes frigid and filthy, unhygienic facilities without access to heat, reasonably warm and clean clothing and bedding, and clean drinking water. The complaint alleges that some of the plaintiffs were denied their necessary medications and reasonable contact with family or attorneys.

The class action seeks an order enjoining the illegal practices and demands compensation for the plaintiffs for damages suffered by their incarceration. Many of the plaintiffs lost property or jobs because of the improper lockups, the complaint alleges.

Similar lawsuits are appearing across the country, especially in Southern states, a public interest law firm previously told Bloomberg BNA, in an Aug. 31 interview on another case. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which claims on its website to be the largest pro bono civil rights network in the world, founded by John F. Kennedy, told Bloomberg BNA that these types of de facto debtors’ prisons “make it impossible to make a living. It becomes impossible to get out from under the snowballing fees” resulting from a simple misdemeanor violation.

Bloomberg BNA Sept 6. reported on a similar case filed in Arkansas, although in that case the plaintiffs did not seek monetary damages, instead requesting an order for declaratory relief and enjoining the alleged illegal practices.

The City Attorney for Florissant didn’t respond to a request for comment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Gill in Washington at dgill@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jay Horowitz at JHorowitz@bna.com

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.