City settles federal lawsuit; judge must weigh ability to pay
Monday, February 25, 2008
News staff writer
The City of Birmingham has agreed to no longer automatically jail defendants who are unable to pay fines and costs for misdemeanor crimes.
In settling a 2006 federal lawsuit, city officials acknowledged that there were certain procedures judges in the Birmingham Municipal Court system did not follow when dealing with indigent defendants.
"We admitted there were certain things the judges were doing that they shouldn't be doing," said Lawrence Cooper, city attorney. "We agreed to follow the rules."
The suit, filed in Birmingham's federal court, accused the city of operating a dual system of justice that punished those who cannot pay fines more severely than those who can. The suit also claimed the city converted days in jail for fines and costs that resulted in a sentence that exceeded the maximum allowed by law.
Under the settlement, before fines, costs or restitution are converted to days in jail at the proper rate of $25 per day, the judge must determine a defendant's ability to pay. In the past, the city's automatic conversion of fines and costs to days in jail was at a rate of $15 per day.
Stephen Wallace, a Birmingham lawyer who sued the city on behalf of four indigent men, said Birmingham's sentences for indigent people who couldn't pay were illegal and unconstitutional. The suit said the Constitution prohibits automatic imprisonment for failing to pay a debt