In the United States, many municipalities rely on fines from traffic violations and other misdemeanors to fund basic government services. The upside of this means of revenue generation, from a political perspective, is that it’s invisible to most voters, and painless for rich people (who are often campaign donors).
But the policy’s downsides are considerable.
For one thing, you generally need to milk those fines from the most disempowered community in your area (any police chief who aggressively cracks down on every little misdemeanor rich, well-connected people commit won’t be in office for long). But the thing about disempowered people is, they don’t have a lot of money. So it can be a real hassle to get them to pay up. And then, if they wish to contest their fine in court, you’ve got to provide them with an attorney. Pretty soon, you’re spending more on collecting the fines than they’re even worth.
South Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Donald Beatty. Photo: Mary Ann Chastain/AP
South Carolina found a pair of elegant solutions to this conundrum:
(1) Intimidate poor people into dutifully paying their fines by imprisoning those who don’t (debtors’ prisons may be a tad costly, but you’ve gotta spend money to make money).
(2) Don’t inform poor defendants that they have a constitutional right to an attorney.
This worked really well for a while. As the American Civil Liberties Union demonstrated in a 2016 report, the South Carolina municipalities of Beaufort and Bluffton were able to extract fines from thousands of poor people every year, without ever providing them access to a public defender. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Lexington County sent a strong message to its fine-evading poor, by sending hundreds of impoverished people to modern-day debtors’ prisons.
Alas, on November 1, South Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Donald Beatty informed summary court judges that the Constitution requires them to honor poor defendants’ rights to an attorney, and prohibits debtors’ prisons — and as judges, they actually do kinda need to adhere to that document.
The instructions came during a training session, and followed studies and lawsuits from the ACLU, drawing attention to the myriad due-process violations in the state’s court system. The chief justice told the summary judges that “violating someone’s constitutional rights is an offense and that there are consequences for an offense,” according to the Post and Courier.
After learning that they could face legal consequences for violating the Constitution, these summary judges decided that they may have issued an improper arrest warrant or two … thousand. As the Post and Courierreports:
Tens of thousands of South Carolinians wanted for arrest for skipping court dates or blowing off fines might be breathing a sigh of relief as judges have stopped jailing some of these low-level offenders under instructions from the state’s chief justice … Many summary courts, which include county magistrates and municipal judges from the Lowcountry to the Upstate, have suspended all arrests on bench warrants as they scramble to figure out which cases are affected.
… Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said the victims are her primary concern.
But she was startled to learn, she said, that even defendants who had bond hearings on magistrate-level offenses were not told of their rights.
“By recalling all those bench warrants, it seems the judges are admitting that failure,” she said. “It is a positive step that the chief justice is correcting this huge flaw in the magistrate court process.”
And they would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for that meddling ACLU