Wilburn Taylor has been criminalized for being poor by the city of Wheat Ridge, not once, but twice.
In March of 2014, a Wheat Ridge police officer encountered Taylor, who was in possession of a blank piece of cardboard and a pen. The officer cited Taylor for panhandling. Municipal Court Judge Christopher Randall then handed down a $100 fine — even though Taylor stated that he was jobless and could not pay.
After his deadline to pay the citation passed, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Taylor was brought back to court two more times, at which point the fines had increased to $275. Without further inquiry into his financial state, the same judge found Taylor in contempt of court for non-payment. He sentenced him to three days in jail — even though Colorado law prohibits sentencing people to jail time if they are unable to pay fines.
“It makes no sense to sentence someone to jail for failure to pay their fine when they had no ability to pay the fine,” said Mark Silverstein of the ACLU of Colorado to The Colorado Independent. “It also violates the constitution. I don’t understand what public purpose is served by making Taylor spend several days in jail when he’s actually innocent of the crime of contempt of court. He did not have the ability to pay.”
In 2013, the ACLU of Colorado conducted a research study that found Wheat Ridge Municipal Court had issued at least 190 “pay-or-serve” warrants in a six-month period. “Pay-or-serve” warrants require a debtor to either pay the full amount of the fine or “serve time in jail to “pay down” that debt. In Wheat Ridge, debts are to be paid down at a rate of $50 per day spent in jail — despite the municipal court having no process set-up that can properly determine whether a person is financially fit to pay, which is required by state and federal law.
Overall, the ACLU sees these “pay-or-serve” warrants as a criminalization of the poor and ultimately, a cost to the city. “The city doesn’t get the fine money (when a debtor serves time in jail) and in fact, the city ends up spending $50 a day or more to lock someone up,” said Silverstein.
In 2014, House Bill 1061 was enacted, which made jailing a person for not paying their court fines illegal — if evidence showed a person’s financial situation made them unable to come up with the money. Taylor fell into this category, as he was jobless and destitute at the time of his citation and continued to be unemployed. When he was brought back to court several times for non-payment, Taylor was eventually thrown in jail for contempt of court.
The ACLU of Colorado filed a motion with the Wheat Ridge Municipal Court, stating that the court violated Colorado statute as well as Taylor’s constitutional rights. They are requesting that the court overturn Taylor’s conviction for contempt of court. The ACLU looks at Taylor’s case as one that will bring attention to the criminalization of the poor through arbitrary jail time.
“We’re hoping that this will help emphasize for that court and other municipal courts the need to comply with the new statute and the need to stop sending poor people to jail for failure to pay when they are too poor to pay their fines,” says Silverstein.
Debtor’s prisons were eliminated in the United States almost two centuries ago, but there has been a steady rise nationwide in imprisoning poor people for not paying their debts.
Colorado was the first state to enact a bill intended to halt this practice in 2014, but municipal courts across the state are still doing it illegally.
Photo credit: Joseph Kranack, Creative Commons, Flickr.