DOJ says Mississippi police unconstitutionally jailed people for unpaid fines

A Mississippi police department violated the Constitution by jailing people for unpaid fines without first assessing whether they can afford to pay them, the U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday.

The Justice Department sent a letter Thursday to the city of Lexington, Mississippi, and the Lexington Police Department "raising significant concerns" about the police department's practices. The announcement comes amid the Justice Department's ongoing investigation into alleged civil rights violations by Lexington police following multiple allegations of misconduct in 2022.

In the letter addressed to Katherine Barrett Riley, the attorney for the city of Lexington, federal prosecutors said Lexington police violated the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution by imprisoning people for outstanding fines without determining whether they had the means to pay them.

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” Kristen Clarke, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement. “Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment."

Justice Department officials said they met with city and police leaders Thursday. Local leaders have pledged to work with the Justice Department to reform their practices, prosecutors said.

Lexington is a city of about 1,600 people about 65 miles north of Mississippi's capital of Jackson, according to the Justice Department. About 80% of the city, nearly 1,300 people, are Black, census data shows.

The city is part of Holmes County, one of the poorest counties in the nation’s poorest state. Last year, Clarke noted that the city has a poverty rate approaching 30%.

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'Unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation'

The Lexington Police Department's "unlawful" practices were identified as part of the Justice Department's investigation, federal prosecutors said. Prosecutors highlighted two practices that violated the Constitution’s prohibition on wealth-based detention.

According to the letter, prosecutors said Lexington police require people who are arrested to pay outstanding fines before they can be released from jail. Police do not evaluate an individual's ability to pay, prosecutors added.

"And regardless of whether the person owes fines, the person must pay an additional charge to be released as well: a $50 'processing fee,' paid to (Lexington police) in cash. (Lexington police) does not evaluate a person's ability to pay," the letter states.

Lexington police also issued and arrested people on warrants for outstanding fines, prosecutors said. Although the Justice Department's investigation is ongoing, prosecutors said they discovered multiple instances in recent months of police requiring people to pay old fines and the processing fee before they could be released from jail.

“One-third of Lexington’s residents live below the poverty line. The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system,” Todd W. Gee, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi, said in a statement.

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Ongoing Justice Department probe into Lexington police misconduct

The Justice Department announced last November that it had opened a civil rights investigation into the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department following accusations that officers used excessive force and arrested people without justification.

At the time of the announcement, officials said the probe would focus on numerous reports from Lexington residents that claimed officers used illegal roadblocks targeted at Black drivers, retaliated against people for recording police activity, committed sexual assault, and made arrests of people for using profanity.

According to officials, the investigation is determining whether the city and its police department engaged in "a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal law." The investigation will also assess whether the police department’s use of force and its stops, searches, and arrests were reasonable and nondiscriminatory.

In 2022, five Black residents filed a federal lawsuit requesting a restraining order against the Lexington Police Department to prevent officers from infringing upon citizens' constitutional rights. The lawsuit claimed that Lexington police have a pattern of using excessive force, making false arrests, and retaliating against officers who report misconduct.

The lawsuit followed the dismissal of the city’s former police chief, Sam Dobbins, in July 2022. Dobbins was fired after a civil rights organization leaked an audio recording of him using racial slurs and bragging about how many people he had killed in the line of duty, including shooting a Black man more than 100 times.

In the Justice Department's letter Thursday, prosecutors said the department has reviewed hundreds of case files, watched hours of body-worn camera footage, and interviewed dozens of witnesses, including Lexington residents and police leadership, officers, and staff.

Contributing: Pam Dankins and N'dea Yancey-Bragg, USA TODAY NETWORK; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mississippi police arrested people on warrants for outstanding fines