December 8, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Nicole Bolden got into a car accident back in March of 2014 in Foristell, Missouri. Someone made an illegal U-turn in front of her car, and despite the 32-year-old African-American single mother’s best efforts, she was unable to avoid a collision. The police officer called to the scene ran a check and found she had as arrest warrant for unpaid traffic tickets from three jurisdictions.
Bolden ended up getting arrested in front of her toddlers and jailed for two weeks because she could not afford to pay $1,758 in outstanding traffic fines, according to a civil rights lawsuit brought against city of Foristell and St Charles County. She accuses them of jailing her illegally, “solely because she was too poor to pay.”
The Guardian reports that the federal suit also accuses Foristell of targeting African-American residents with fines and fees that boost the city’s coffers in a system that “maximizes revenues, not justice.”
Bolden was only able to get out of jail after her mother borrowed against her life insurance policy to pay her bond. During the two weeks she was incarcerated, she was never given the opportunity to tell a judge she could not afford to pay for her freedom.
Bolden claims she was a no-show at her court appearances because she didn’t have the money to pay the fines and was afraid she would be jailed for it. While a judge might not jail you for being unable to afford a fine, they are certainly inclined to lock someone up for failing to appear in court.
In March, 2016, the Department of Justice wrote to chief judges in all 50 states warning them against illegally fining and jailing people where the issue was not refusal to pay but the inability to pay.
According to USA Today, Foristell, the city named in Bolden’s lawsuit, raises more than half its revenue from court fines—at least $2.9 million over the past five years in a city of just 500 people. The city, known for being a speed trap, was one of the cities targeted for audits by the Missouri auditor’s office as part of its special focus on municipal court abuses.
Thomas B. Harvey, executive director and cofounder of ArchCity Defenders, the nonprofit representing Bolden, best summed up the harm wrought by municipal court abuses in Missouri,
Municipalities in St. Louis County fan the flames of racial tension, oppression, and disenfranchisement by appropriating the courts to act as governmental debt-collection agencies, implicitly charging them to ensure the municipalities’ fine-generated revenues sufficiently maintain government operations.
Ironically, it had been Bolden’s hope to become a police dispatcher or corrections officer “for the opportunities.”
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