Couple gets Traffic Ticket While Visiting Dying Son in Hospital and is JAILED Due to Inability to Pay Ballooning Court Fees
Unbelievable. An Alabama couple say they ended up in a modern-day equivalent of a debtor’s jail after they had failed to pay court fees in connection to a minor traffic violation as their young son lay dying in the hospital. Tim Fugatt, a music pastor from Sylacauga, Alabama, was pulled over in Childersburg in December 2010 and issued a ticket for driving with an expired tag on his license plate:
At the time of the traffic stop, Mr Fugatt was returning home from visiting his terminally ill infant son, Cole, suffering from a rare brain disease. Fugatt’s wife of 12 years, Kristy, also had received tickets for two traffic violations, and both husband and wife were ordered to appear at the Childersburg Municipal Court.
The couple told a judge about their gravely ill child and were both found not guilty, but the judge ruled they still had to pay $500 in court fees.
Mr. Fugatt, who also has two older children, said at the time of his young son’s illness he could not hold down a steady job because he was spending much of his time at the hospital, according toPBS’ NewsHour.
When the family were unable to come up with the necessary funds to cover the court costs, their case was turned over to the Judicial Corrections Services, a private company that collects fines for the City of Childersburg. A short time later, Mr Fugatt said he received a notice from the company threatening him and his wife with jail.
‘They would just plain out say, you know, “If you can’t pay then they’ll issue you a warrant for your arrest,”‘ Fugatt recalled in an interview with NewsHour, which initially broke the story in April.
The debt collectors made good on their threat in 2012 when the Fugatts stopped making payments and Kristy Greer-Fugatt missed one of their court dates.
‘I felt completely like a criminal,’ the Alabama pastor recalled. ‘I mean I didn’t sell drugs. I didn’t break into anyone’s home. I didn’t kill anybody. I had an expired tag.’ The couple were sprung from jail a few hours after being taken into custody when a relative paid a portion of their debt.
Fuggat’s son, Cole, passed away June 10, 2011, from his brain disease, survived by his older brother and sister.
The couple have since joined a class action lawsuit filed by the non-profit civil rights organization the Southern Poverty Law Center against the Judicial Corrections Services and the City of Childersburg.
The suit alleges that jailing people who cannot afford to pay fines is in violations of the US Constitution. In 1971, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution prohibits imposing ‘a jail term solely because the defendant is indigent and cannot forthwith pay the fine in full.’
In the Fugatts’ case, they were found not guilty of committing traffic violations but still ended up behind bars when they were unable to pay the court fees.
David Dinelli, deputy legal director of SPLC, estimates 1,000 people are sent to jail every month in Alabama because they cannot afford to pay a fine
‘Everyone thinks that debtor’s prison is over, it’s behind us,’ he told NewsHour. ‘It isn’t. As a matter of practice, and in some cases, policy, the courts ask one question, “Can you pay the fine.” If you can’t then you have to what’s called “sit it out in jail.”’
Private contractors like JCS do not charge the city anything to collect debts, but they pass the cost of doing business onto offenders like the Fugatts, charging them $45 a month on top of a start-up fee until the entire debt is paid in full.
After their son passed away in June 2011, the family lost their home to foreclosure. The parents were in deep mourning, and Tim Fugatt said he appealed to the JCS to work out a deal with him in light of the circumstance, but his plea fell on deaf ears. Over the next eight months, the family racked up additional $2,500 in fines for failure to appear in court, and finally in February 2012 a warrant was issued for their arrest. Two years later, the family still owe the private contractor money after paying down $1,300. Even in this very sad circumstance, it seems that Dad could have found more stable employment and started making headway on this bill. There are two other children to think of here, and mom isn’t without responsibility either.
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