Cleveland v. City of Montgomery et al

Filing 58

OPINION. Signed by Honorable Judge Myron H. Thompson on 11/17/2014. (wcl, )

Download PDF
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF ALABAMA, NORTHERN DIVISION HARRIET DELORES CLEVELAND, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) v. ) ) CITY OF MONTGOMERY and ) THE HONORABLE MILTON J. ) WESTRY, ) ) Defendants. ) MARKIS ANTWUAN WATTS, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF MONTGOMERY, THE HONORABLE MILTON J. WESTRY, and THE HONORABLE LES HAYES III, Defendants. ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) ) CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:13cv732-MHT (WO) CIVIL ACTION NO. 2:13cv733-MHT (WO) OPINION “Providing equal justice for poor and rich, weak and powerful alike is an age-old problem. People have never ceased to hope and strive to move closer to that goal.” Griffin v. Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 16, (1956). Plaintiffs Harriet Delores Cleveland and Martin Antwuan Watts bring these consolidated federal cases against defendants City of Montgomery and two of the City’s municipal judges, claiming that they were thrown in jail for being too poor to pay parking tickets in violation of their rights to counsel, equal protection, and due process under the following federal and state laws: the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution; Article I, §§ 1, 6, and 22 of the Alabama Constitution; and the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure. Subject-matter jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 (federal question), 1343(a)(3) (civil rights), and 1367 (supplemental). These cases are before this federal court on the parties’ joint motion for entry of agreed settlement order. The motion will be granted. I. BACKGROUND Cleveland and Watts allege that they were unconstitutionally jailed because they were too poor to 2 pay Montgomery city traffic-ticket fines and associated court costs. Although the facts remain disputed, to give background for the settlement the court briefly reviews them as alleged by Cleveland and Watts. Cleveland alleges that, over a period of five years, she received a number of traffic tickets that she could not afford to pay. The first tickets were for a lack of car insurance. Over a two-year span, police set up roadblocks in her West Montgomery neighborhood, and she was ticketed each time she could not present proof of insurance. Because she could not afford to pay these tickets, the City of Montgomery suspended driving her to eventually license. work and received without a license. Nevertheless, her child’s additional she school, tickets for continued and she driving She remained unable to pay the fines owed, and, in August 2013, her outstanding fines 3 were converted into a term of imprisonment in the Montgomery Municipal Jail.1 Similarly, Watts alleges that he was taken into custody to serve a 54-day sentence based solely on his inability before to the unrelated pay a traffic Montgomery misdemeanor ticket Municipal charge. when Court he appeared regarding Although the an court dismissed the misdemeanor, it learned that Watts had outstanding traffic fines. The court options: either pay or face jail time. gave him two After he stated that he could not afford to pay the outstanding fines, the court sentenced him to jail. In August Montgomery 2013, while still in Municipal Jail, Cleveland custody and brought suit individually in state court. removal to this federal court, the in Watts the each Following cases were                                                              1. Cleveland also alleges that she was jailed at least twice prior to 2013 due to her inability to pay the traffic tickets she received during 2008 and 2009. Little information was provided, however, regarding those periods of incarceration or the municipal-court proceedings that produced them. 4 consolidated. and Cleveland and Watts sought declaratory injunctive defendants orders relief. agreed of to a The stay incarceration City of and the and the other municipal-court the collection of outstanding debts pending discovery in this matter. During discovery, another federal case, Mitchell v. City of Montgomery, No. 2:14cv186-MHT, was filed. facts in Mitchell plaintiffs Mitchell raise analogous, substantially court, injunction. are however, and similar entered the The Mitchell claims. a The preliminary As part of the injunction, the City of Montgomery was ordered to submit a comprehensive set of proposed judicial procedures that it would implement for the collection Cleveland’s and of fines Watts’s going cases have forward. been While litigated separately from Mitchell, this court allowed Cleveland and Watts to participate in the briefing and proposed hearing regarding the proposed judicial procedures. All parties then decided to engage in private mediation to develop agreed-upon procedures that would 5 facially The satisfy parties procedures federal contend now and that establish defendants will inability to restitution.” not a state-law the scheme be requirements. resulting proposed whereby indigent “incarcerated pay fine[s] or Ala. R. P. Crim. for court [their] costs 26.11(i)(2). or The procedures are guided by four key components: access to counsel, notification forms, “indigence/ability-to-pay” hearings, and express judicial findings. Under the proposed judicial procedures, a debtor who does not otherwise have counsel is to be represented by a public defender at all compliance and indigence/ability-to-pay hearings. A public defender will also be available to a debtor who needs assistance completing related an affidavit documentation of prior substantial to hardship hearings. and Lastly, public defenders are instructed to inform any debtor who is ultimately subject appellate rights. 6 to imprisonment of her If a debtor is unable to pay her fine, she will be notified of her right to a public defender, the date of her compliance hearing, and her right to present evidence of financial hardship through a set of forms: Form One (“Payment of Fines and Costs”) and Form Two (“Order Setting Hearing for Compliance Review”). The forms notify the debtor that an individual “cannot be put in jail solely for [her] inability to pay ... fines and costs” absent a finding of willful non-payment. The forms go on to indicate how a debtor would begin establishing inability to pay at her first compliance hearing. During a debtor’s first compliance hearing--scheduled for all debtors who do not pay their fines and costs in full at their first appearance--the debtor must be given the opportunity to dispute the amount allegedly owed. Additionally, the municipal-court judge is required to ask why the debtor has failed to pay in full, specifically asking whether the debtor “is able to pay 7 [that day].” If, in response to the municipal court’s inquiry, the debtor indicates that she is unable to pay, the court will direct the debtor to a public defender and schedule an indigence/ability-to-pay hearing. Even if the debtor does not indicate an inability to pay, the court is prohibited from converting the debtor’s fines into a prison sentence without first conducting an indigence/ability-to-pay hearing. At an indigence/ability-to-pay hearing, the court is required to make an express indigence/ability-to-pay determination, taking into account testimony, the debtor’s affidavit of substantial hardship, any other documents submitted by the debtor, and any additional information the court deems necessary. If, after questioning and the presentation of evidence, the court determines that the debtor is at or below 125 % of the federal poverty level, the debtor will be presumed indigent and unable to pay the fines, court costs, and restitution previously levied, unless the debtor is found to have substantial liquid assets with which to 8 pay the obligations. above 125 % of the If the debtor is found to be federal poverty presumption of indigence will attach; level, no such the debtor will, however, still be afforded an opportunity to show the court that she consideration is unable disposable to income, pay, liquid taking assets, into and earning potential. If, following the hearing, the debtor is determined to be indigent or otherwise unable to pay, the court will have the option of proposing a new payment plan guided by the debtor’s available financial resources, remitting the fines and costs, or ordering any other remedy deemed incarceration. just and appropriate other than Additionally, the court is required to provide the debtor the option of completing community service in lieu of making monetary payments. The court will be able to order the debtor to serve jail time only if the hearing results in an express finding of willful non-payment, that is, the debtor refuses to pay despite having the ability to pay. 9 II. JOINT MOTION FOR ENTRY OF AGREED SETTLEMENT ORDER The parties have submitted to this federal court the proposed judicial procedures as an exhibit to their joint motion for entry of agreed settlement order. In the joint motion, they request that the court issue certain declarations under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 addressing the proposed judicial procedures’ facial compliance with applicable federal and state law. For each of these requested declarations, the court will now determine whether the proposed judicial procedures facially comply with federal and state law. It need not--and will not--determine whether the new procedures represent the minimum requirements under federal and state constitutional law or, instead, go beyond what is required. A. Declaration 1 The parties ask this federal court to declare that, under the current status of the law, the constitutional 10 principles set out in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), regarding incarceration for non-payment, and Turner v. Rogers, --- U.S. ---, 131 S. Ct. 2507 (2011), regarding notice, apply in municipal-court proceedings, and that, to the extent applicable in a particular case, the judges of the Montgomery Municipal Court are legally required to follow them. It is uncontroverted municipal-court that proceedings. these Both cases cases apply to addressed state judicial proceedings, see Bearden, 461 U.S. at 662 (addressing Georgia state courts); Turner, --- U.S. at ---, 131 S. Ct. at 2512 (addressing South Carolina family court), subordinate and “[m]unicipalities departments of state are but government.” Alexander v. State ex rel. Carver, 274 Ala. 441, 443 (1963); see also Ysursa v. Pocatello Educ. Ass’n, 555 U.S. 353, 662 (2009) (“Political subdivisions of States ... are [] subordinate governmental instrumentalities created by the State.”). As such, judges in municipal courts, like judges in state 11 courts, must follow Bearden and Turner, and the judges in the Montgomery Municipal Court are no exception.2 B. The parties next Declaration 2 request this federal court to declare that the proposed judicial procedures facially comply with the constitutional principles set out in Bearden, regarding incarceration for non-payment, and Turner, regarding notice. In Bearden, the Supreme Court held that, under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause, a trial court cannot “automatically revok[e] probation because [a] petitioner could not pay his fine, without                                                              2. The parties’ proposed order for declaratory relief specifically requests that “to the extent applicable in a particular case, the judges of the Montgomery Municipal Court are legally required to follow” Bearden and Turner. Am. Joint Mot. for Entry of Agreed Settlement: Proposed Order (Doc. No. 56-3) (emphasis added). This court reads the “extent applicable” phrase to mean only that the municipal judges are bound by these Supreme Court cases whenever an issue before the municipal court implicates them rather than implying exceptions for municipal judges in certain cases. 12 determining that petitioner had not made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay or that adequate alternative forms of punishment did not exist.” 461 U.S. at 662. This holding breaks down into a three-part process. First, a court must ask why a person could not pay a fine. Id. at 672. Second, if the person has the resources and willfully refuses to pay, the court may imprison her; if she does not have the resources, the court must ask whether she made bona-fide efforts to obtain the resources. Id. Last, if she made bona-fide efforts, the court must consider if there are adequate alternative measures--such as giving more time to pay the fine, reducing the fine, or requiring labor or public service in lieu of the fine--that could satisfy the State’s interest in punishment and deterrence. Id. at not 672-673. “Only if alternate measures are adequate to meet the State’s interests in punishment and deterrence may the court imprison a probationer who has made sufficient bona fide efforts to pay.” Id. at 672. Indeed, “[t]o do otherwise 13 would deprive the [debtor] of his constitutional freedom simply because, through no fault of his own, he cannot pay a fine.” Id. at 672-73. Turner expanded on Bearden by defining an indigent person’s due-process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment when facing civil contempt. Turner, --- U.S. at ---, 131 S. Ct. at 2512. Although the Supreme Court found that a State did not have to provide counsel, drawing a distinction criminal-contempt between proceedings, it held civilthat and a State should provide “substitute procedural safeguards” that, when “employed together, can significantly reduce the risk of an erroneous deprivation of liberty.” Id. at ---, 131 S. Ct. at 2519 (internal citation omitted). These safeguards could include “(1) notice to the defendant that his ability to pay is a critical issue in the contempt proceedings; (2) the use of a form (or the equivalent) to elicit relevant financial information; (3) an opportunity at the hearing for the defendant to respond to statements and questions about 14 his financial status ... ; and (4) an express finding by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.” Id. Here, the proposed judicial procedures facially comply with the constitutional requirements outlined in Bearden. Under Bearden, a court may imprison a debtor only upon a finding of willful non-payment or when, despite the debtor making a bona-fide effort to pay, “alternative measures [of punishment] are not adequate to meet the deterrence.” State’s interests 461 U.S. at 672. in punishment and The judicial procedures agreed to by the parties here conform to that standard, allowing a debtor to be imprisoned only if (1) the municipal ability court to pay determines and (2) that the the court debtor makes an had the express finding that the non-payment was willful. Similarly, facially comply the proposed with provided for in Turner. the judicial due-process procedures requirements Although the Sixth Amendment does not provide debtors facing incarceration a right 15 to counsel during Due Process Clause civil-contempt does require proceedings, several the “substitute procedural safeguards” during these civil proceedings. Turner, --- U.S. at ---, 131 S. Ct. at 2519. The judicial procedures offered by the parties incorporate all of the procedural safeguards discussed in Turner. Under the individual procedures, cannot be debtors are incarcerated notified solely that due to an an inability to pay; the court utilizes a form to elicit debtors’ financial information and debtors are afforded an opportunity to respond to questions regarding their financial capabilities; and the court is required to make an express finding regarding each debtor’s ability to pay. to The judicial procedures then go a step further safeguard against the “erroneous deprivation of liberty” and provide for public-defender representation at all facing indigence/ability-to-pay the possibility of non-payment. 16 hearings for incarceration debtors following C. Declaration 3 Last, the parties request that this federal court declare that the proposed judicial procedures facially comply Sixth with the Amendments requirements to the of United the Fourteenth States and Constitution, §§ 13, 64, and 225 of the Alabama Constitution, and Rule 26.11 of the Alabama Rules of Criminal Procedure.6                                                              3. Section 1 provides, “That all men are equally free and independent; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ala. Const. Art. I, § 1. 4. Section 6 provides, “That in all criminal prosecutions, the accused has a right to be heard by himself and counsel, or either; to demand the nature and cause of the accusation; and to have a copy thereof; to be confronted by the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor; to testify in all cases, in his own behalf, if he elects so to do; and, in all prosecutions by indictment, a speedy, public trial, by an impartial jury of (continued . . .) 17                                                                                                                                                                                                   the county or district in which the offense was committed; and he shall not be compelled to give evidence against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, except by due process of law; but the legislature may, by a general law, provide for a change of venue at the instance of the defendant in all prosecutions by indictment, and such change of venue, on application of the defendant, may be heard and determined without the personal presence of the defendant so applying therefor; provided, that at the time of the application for the change of venue, the defendant is imprisoned in jail or some legal place of confinement.” Ala. Const. Art. I, § 6. 5. Section 22 provides, “That no ex post facto law, nor any law, impairing the obligations of contracts, or making any irrevocable or exclusive grants of special privileges or immunities, shall be passed by the legislature; and every grant or franchise, privilege, or immunity shall forever remain subject to revocation, alteration, or amendment.” Ala. Const. Art. I, § 22. 6. The relevant part of Rule 26.11 provides, (continued . . .) 18 First, comply the with proposed the judicial Fourteenth procedures Amendment. As facially discussed above, Bearden and Turner govern the application of the Due Process Clause civil-contempt and Equal proceedings for Protection indigent Clause parties, to and the proposed judicial procedures meet the requirements set out in those two cases. Second, Sixth the procedures Amendment. indigent Under defendant government-appointed facially with the Sixth Amendment, an the the right to has counsel civil--contempt proceedings. in comply criminal--but not Turner, --- U.S. at ---, 131 S. Ct. at 2516. The court, however, need not speak to the nature case. of Because procedures provide the municipal the for parties’ the proceedings proposed representation in this judicial of all                                                                                                                                                                                                   “In no case shall an indigent defendant be incarcerated for inability to pay a fine or court costs or restitution.” Ala. R. Crim. Proc. 26.11. 19 debtors during compliance and ability-to-pay hearings, they would comply with the Sixth Amendment. Third, the procedures facially comply with the due process, right to counsel, and any equal-protection principle embodied in Article I, §§ 1, 6, and 22 of the Alabama Constitution for the same reasons they comply with the United States Constitution. As to due process, “[t]he right to due process is guaranteed to the citizens of Alabama under the Alabama Constitution of 1901, Sections 6 and 13,” and it applies to both criminal and civil cases. Ross Neely Exp., Inc. v. Alabama Dep't of Envtl. Mgmt., 437 So. 2d 82, 84 (Ala. 1983). These clauses have been likened to the Due Process Clause in the federal Constitution. Limestone Cnty. Dep't of Human Res. v. Long, --- So.3d ---, ---, 2014 WL 5394522, at *4 (Ala. Civ. App. 2014) (“[The Alabama] supreme court ‘has interpreted the due process guaranteed under the Alabama Constitution to be coextensive with the due process guaranteed under the United States Constitution’ .... Alabama's constitution 20 does not afford a state agency any additional right to due process not found in the federal constitution.”) (citing Elliott v. Van Kleef, 830 So.2d 726, 730 (Ala. 2002)); Vest v. Vest, 978 So. 2d 759, 763 n.1 (Ala. Civ. App. 2006) (“Alabama courts have likened the due-process provision of Ala. Const. of 1901, Art. 1, § 13, to Amendment the of Due the Process United Clause States of the Fourteenth Constitution.”). As discussed above, the proposed procedures facially meet the due-process requirement by providing counsel to indigent debtors and guaranteeing no debtor will go to prison unless she willfully refuses to pay. Similar due-process to their rights in interpretation light of federal of state due-process rights, Alabama courts have also frequently interpreted the Alabama Constitution’s right to counsel in light of the federal right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment. See, e.g., Hill v. Bradford, 565 So. 2d 208, 210 (Ala. 1990); Pinkerton v. State, 395 So. 2d 1080 (Ala. Crim. App. 1980). Because every debtor unable to pay her 21 fines will be procedures, provided the counsel procedures meet under the the proposed right-to-counsel requirement under the Alabama Constitution. As to equal protection, there is an open question whether Article Constitution can I, §§ be 1, 6, read 770 So.2d 49, 59 22 together equal-protection principle. Ctr., and of to the Alabama establish an Hutchins v. DCH Reg’l Med. (Ala. 2000) (“The question whether §§ 1, 6, and 22 of Article I, Constitution of Alabama 1901, combine to Alabama equal protection guarantee under the the citizens of remains in laws dispute.”); see also Dyas v. City of Fairhope, 2010 WL 5477754 (S.D. Ala. 2010) (Steele, C.J.) (analyzing past Alabama Supreme Court cases on the issue). Assuming arguendo for that these clauses do combine an equal-protection principle, the court finds that the proposed procedures meet this principle for the same reason the procedures fulfill the requirements of the federal Equal Protection Clause. Cf. State v. Adams, 91 So. 3d 724, 738-41 (Ala. Crim. App. 2010) (holding 22 Alabama sex-offender federal Equal law unconstitutional Protection Clause under and the the state equal-protection principle because it deprived indigent and homeless, but not wealthy, offenders of liberty based on their poverty). Last, the requirements 26.11. procedures of Alabama facially Rule of comply with Criminal the Procedure The rule mandates that, “Incarceration shall not automatically follow the nonpayment of a fine or restitution.” Ala. R. Crim. P. 26.11. Indeed, a state court may not incarcerate an indigent defendant for the inability to pay a fine. the state court ability to payment schedule, obligation procedures hearings, pay, may or incarceration as the release altogether. a of into debt the Id. for facially conform to this rule. 23 owed, defendant’s modify proposed from the the judicial indigence/ability-to-pay counsel, remedy the defendant The require guarantee To avoid this result, inquire reduce (which Id. and exclusion indigent of defendants) *** This federal court will, therefore, grant the parties’ joint motion for entry of agreed settlement order. An accompanying judgment will be entered. DONE, this the 17th day of November, 2014. /s/ Myron H. Thompson___ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.

Why Is My Information Online?