Courts are breaking the law by holding defendants in contempt of court for failing to pay fines without proper notice or allowing an attorney to be present, according to the ACLU report. Also, the investigation indicates warrants are being issued for people who fail to show up and pay their fines and jailing defendants who are too poor to pay.
As of Thursday, Norwalk Municipal Court records indicate there were no outstanding warrants for failing to pay their fines or costs. Related statistics for 2012 weren’t available at press time.
Norwalk Police Chief Dave Light was asked if his department is too aggressive in making fines-related warrants. Police have made general warrant arrests one of the department’s highest priorities for several years in a row.
“(We’re) not aggressive enough,” Light said.
If suspects are wanted on a warrant, the chief said, “we’re going to pick them up.”
When people pay their fines related to a warrant, Light said authorities immediately recall the warrant from the LEADS database “so we don’t have a false arrest type (of) situation.”
“There are strict guidelines and policies on that,” he said.
Since 2008, Norwalk police have been picking up suspects arrested on warrants in adjoining counties.
For years before that, Light said officers would “go all over Ohio to arrest people.”
“We’ve stopped picking those people up,” he said. “We don’t have the manpower to pick them up anymore.”
Now, Light said warrant arrests are limited to “serious offenders,” such as ones charged with felonies, domestic violence, assaults and other violent crimes.
What Light said “binds the hands of law enforcement and courts” is when defendants are indigent and can’t afford to pay their fines and costs. When prisoners are jailed, they must be given financial credit each day they are behind bars, he said.
“And most criminals are indigent because they refuse to work anyway,” the chief added.
Light pointed out the irony of criminals being “healthy enough” to break into someone’s vehicle or home or they have enough money to buy drugs, but they often don’t seek employment.
“Being poor is not a crime in this country,” said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney at the ACLU racial justice program, in a prepared statement.
“Incarcerating people who cannot afford to pay fines is both unconstitutional and cruel — it takes a tremendous toll on precisely those families already struggling the most.”