February 29, 2024

Justice Department Informs Lexington Police Department That Automatically Jailing People for Unpaid Fines Violates Constitution

Morgan Howard

Press Release from DOJ:

The Justice Department sent a letter today to the City of Lexington, Mississippi, and the Lexington Police Department (LPD) raising significant concerns regarding their practice of jailing people for unpaid fines without first assessing whether they can afford to pay them.

Specifically, the department informed the City and LPD that their practice violates the Constitution’s prohibition on wealth-based detention in two ways: first, by requiring people who are arrested to pay down outstanding fines before they can be released from jail, and second, by issuing and arresting people on warrants for outstanding fines.

Today’s letter is a part of the Justice Department’s ongoing civil pattern or practice investigation into the City of Lexington and LPD. The investigation, opened on Nov. 8, 2023, seeks to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution and federal law related to use of force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing and the right to free speech. Although the investigation continues, the Justice Department determined that it was critically important to identify these violations now rather than waiting until the conclusion of the inquiry.

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment. There is great urgency underlying the issues we have uncovered in Mississippi, and we stand ready to work with officials to end these harmful practices and ensure the civil and constitutional rights of Lexington residents are protected.”

“One third of Lexington’s residents live below the poverty line. The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system,” said U.S. Attorney Todd W. Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi. “Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

Justice Department officials met with city and police leaders earlier today about their unlawful practice, which investigators identified during its ongoing investigation. Lexington officials have pledged to work with the Justice Department to ensure that the collection of fines and fees complies with legal requirements.

On April 20, 2023, the Justice Department issued a Dear Colleague Letter on Fines and Fees explaining that before a person can be imprisoned for failure to pay a fine or fee, the Constitution requires courts to first determine whether the person lacks the resources to pay. In most circumstances, if a person cannot afford to pay, imprisonment for unpaid fines or fees is unlawful.

Additional information about the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is available on its website at www.justice.gov/crt. Information specific to the Civil Rights Division’s police reform work can be found at www.justice.gov/crt/file/922421/download.

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