County agrees to stop jailings over civil debts

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- County officials agreed to stop running what amounts to what some say is a debtors' prison, after two men sued saying they were arrested or threatened with arrest over debts that can only be collected through civil court proceedings.
The agreement in federal court Wednesday by Lauderdale County officials stems from a lawsuit by Lester C. Smith and William M. Robinson. The county's general sessions court had issued arrest warrants for Smith and Robinson for failure to pay $200 each in court costs from unrelated misdemeanor cases.
Under state law, court costs are civil debts for which a debtor cannot be jailed. Federal Judge J. Daniel Breen said such arrests violate the 13th Amendment ban on slavery and involuntary servitude.
Robert Hutton, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said the county routinely used the threat of jail to get money from people too poor to pay civil judgments.
"They're suit-proof," Hutton said. "They can't garnishee your paycheck, but if I'm going to throw you in jail until you pay it, you're going to find a way to get that money even if you have to go without food."
Defense lawyer Kemper Durand said county officials failed to realize their debt collecting was improper until the suit was filed. "They immediately sought to correct the problem," he said.

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