For people living below the poverty line across South Carolina, a single traffic violation can be enough to send them into a downward spiral of debt, jail time and more debt.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Terrell Marshall Law Group are targeting the issue with a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in a U.S. District Court in Columbia. The case challenges Lexington County's practice of jailing people who can't afford to pay court fines for minor offenses.
Nusrat Choudhury, the senior staff attorney with ACLU's Racial Justice Program, said the groups also will notify other entities in South Carolina about the need to address what she called "the modern-day debtors' prison."
"This lawsuit is a call to action," she said. "Poor people should never be locked up behind bars because of their poverty."
The lawsuit is the latest of at least seven the ACLU has pursued around the country since 2015. Others that were successful in Dekalb County, Ga., and Biloxi, Miss., led local courts to reform how they treated low-income people faced with fines, such as holding hearings to determine how much they could afford to pay.
Some similar reforms are taking shape in Charleston, where the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is examining how offenders of minor crimes can avoid bench warrants and jail time. Some strategies include pretrial screenings to evaluate whether an offender is indigent, and if so, ensuring he or she has a public defender.
Kristy Danford, who works with the council, wasn't surprised the ACLU was putting a spotlight on South Carolina.
"This is a big national issue, and we’re seeing it play out here just like we’re seeing it across the country," she said. "I think it’s our obligation to be mindful of the principles of justice in general. If we are stepping out of those lines, we need to find our way back to them."
South Carolina law allows county court clerks to issue bench warrants when fines are past due, in some cases only five days after they’re issued. The state can levy other penalties, such as revoking someone's driver's license, but many offenders end up spending time in county jails across the state.
Before his death by a North Charleston police officer in 2015, Walter Scott had a warrant out for his arrest for failing to make child support payments that had added up to more than $18,000.
He ran from an April 4, 2015, traffic stop and got into a struggle with North Charleston officer Michael Slager. The officer said Scott grabbed his Taser during the scuffle. As Scott started running again, Slager fired eight shots, hitting him five times in the back.
Slager has since pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Scott's civil rights.
Scott was sent to jail at least three times over a 15-year period for not paying child support. He told The Post and Courier in 2003 that serving jail time caused him to lose his job, and made it more difficult to stay on top of the payments.
Rodney Scott, his brother, has said he thinks his brother ran from the officer because he didn't want to go back to jail.
Orrie West, a circuit public defender in Horry County, said she's seen many poor and homeless people stuck in a cycle of debt and incarceration.
"They lose their jobs, then they lose their public housing," she said. "Then, when they finally get out (of jail), they get a low-paying job at McDonald's, and they still can't afford to pay their fine."
More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges cannot send people to jail just because they are too poor to pay their court fines. But many judges have said it's difficult to determine if a defendant can pay.
Lexington County records show more than 1,000 people risked jail time in the past year for failing to pay fines owed to the magistrate court, according to the statement released Thursday by the ACLU.
The ACLU also said many of those arrested ended up staying in jail for weeks without seeing a judge or getting help from an attorney.
One plaintiff in the case, Marshinda Brown, said she spent 57 days in the Lexington County jail because she fell behind on payments for a traffic citation. She lives in subsidized housing with her children and works at a fast food restaurant.
"The poorest people among us, particularly people of color, are punished disproportionately," said Choudhury of the ACLU. "It’s not just wrong and unfair, it’s counterproductive and wasteful."
The Lexington County Detention Center was built to hold 599 inmates, but it has struggled for years with overcrowding. Choudhury said finding alternatives to incarceration, such as income-based payment plans for citations, would help Lexington County solve two problems at once.
"What we see around the country is that courts can and do hold people accountable while protecting fairness and treating the rich and poor equally," she said.
Harrison Cahill, Lexington County's public information officer, said the county's attorney is reviewing the court documents but declined to comment further.