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How Fines and Fees Criminalize Poverty: Explained

Illustration by Hisashi Okawa

How Fines and Fees Criminalize Poverty: Explained

In our Explainer series, Justice Collaborative lawyers and other legal experts help unpack some of the most complicated issues in the criminal justice system. We break down the problems behind the headlines—like bail, civil asset forfeiture, or the Brady doctrine—so that everyone can understand them. Wherever possible, we try to utilize the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system to show how these laws and principles should work, and how they often fail. We will update our Explainers quarterly to keep them current.

In Georgia, a man stole a can of beer worth $2 from a corner store. The court ordered him to wear an ankle monitor for a year. The company administering it, Sentinel Offender Services, charged him so much money that he eventually owed more than $1,000. Trying to keep up with his payments, he sold plasma, but he fell behind and the judge jailed him for non-payment.

In Amarillo, Texas, Janet Blair-Cato received a “barking ticket” because the abandoned dogs she rescued made too much noise. Police also gave her tickets for failing to obtain the proper vaccinations and buy dog tags. In total, she owed thousands of dollars. She missed an installment on her payment plan, and the judge issued a warrant for her arrest. She spent 52 days in jail. Two days after her release, she received a new barking ticket. She has stopped rescuing dogs.

In Macomb County, Michigan, the sheriff’s department arrested 32-year-old David Stojcevski because he did not pay a $772 traffic ticket for careless driving. He was ordered to spend 30 days in jail, but he died on the 17th day after experiencing seizures and convulsions due to drug withdrawal.

To raise revenue and make up for budget shortfalls, cities, states, courts, and prosecutors levy hefty fines at nearly every stage of the criminal justice system. People leaving prison owe on average $13,607 in fines and fees. For those who are poor, these fees can be catastrophic. An inability to pay can lead to a suspended license, additional fees, and even jail. In this Explainer, we explore all the ways the poor are regressively taxed in the justice system, and what can be done to stop these practices.

1. People receive crushing fines and fees throughout the criminal justice system.

Whether it’s a city imposing the fees or a court system, the effect is the same: an added burden on those who can least afford it.

Cities assess fees for minor infractions.

To increase revenue, many states and municipalities impose hefty fines on those charged with minor offenses like traffic violations, jaywalking, or even leaving a trashcan on the street. Because the offenses are “minor” and because the penalties are, at least superficially, not severe, people often receive these fines without a lawyer to help contest them. [Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell / Buzzfeed]

Ferguson, Missouri, is probably the city best known for abusing this practice. Rather than raise taxes, the city, home to the Fortune 500 company Emerson Electric, charges hefty fines and fees for offenses as minor as “walking in the roadway,” walking with “saggy pants,” or putting out the trash on the wrong day. Police officers’ evaluations were tied to their ticket-pushing “productivity,” and, in 2013, fees raised through municipal court fines amounted to 20 percent of the city’s budget. [Walter Johnson / The Atlantic]

Qiana Williams, a homeless single mom, was one of many ensnared in Ferguson’s fee trap. At 19, she received a ticket for driving without a license. She missed a court date and the police arrested her. Unable to pay the $250 bond, she stayed in jail. That began her cycle through the system where, in total, she spent over four months in jail because of unpaid tickets and fines. On one occasion, police arrested her after she called them because her ex-boyfriend assaulted her. [Whitney Benns and Blake Strode / The Atlantic]

This is a national problem. In Austin, Texas, Valerie Gonzalez lacked a driver’s license but needed to drive her five kids to school and her husband and herself to work. Over the years, she amassed more than $4,500 in fines for driving without a license. She could never pay them because she was so poor that she often lived out of her car. When police arrested her on traffic warrants, a judge ordered her to pay $1,000 that day or spend 45 days in jail. [Jazmine Ulloa / Austin American-Statesman]

Courts impose fees for arrests, lawyers—and virtually everything else.

Courts impose astronomical fees on those charged with crimes, fees known as legal financial obligations. These include arrest fees, bench warrant fees, lawyer fees, crime lab fees, jury fees, and victim assessments. There are even fees for sleeping in jail. In 1991, just 25 percent of convicted people received court-ordered fines. In 2004, 66 percent did. [Alana Semuels / The Atlantic]

According to a study conducted by National Public Radio, in at least 43 states, defendants must pay a fee for a public defender. In at least 41 states, they are charged “room and board” for prison stays. And, in every place but Washington, D.C., they must pay to wear an electronic home monitoring device. [Joseph Shapiro / NPR]

North Carolina courts charge fines for seemingly everything. Defendants unable to afford a lawyer are assessed $60 before a judge considers whether to appoint one. Once a lawyer is appointed, the defendant must pay an hourly fee. If the defendant is held in jail, unable to make bail before trial, he must pay $10 a day. If he is placed on pretrial release, he must pay $15. There is a $600 fee if the prosecutor decides to test evidence at the state crime lab. Many of these charges cannot be waived by a judge. [Anne Blythe / News & Observer]

Private probation companies often levy their own fines and fees, and they jail people for nonpayment.

In Tennessee, the private probation company, Providence Community Corrections, charged people monthly supervision fees along with fees for nearly every required service, including drug tests and community service. If people couldn’t pay, they were jailed. As in Georgia, some “clients” reported selling plasma to avoid going to jail for nonpayment. [Shaila Dewan / New York Times] In September 2017, the company agreed to pay $14 million to settle a federal lawsuit accusing it of extortion and violating federal racketeering laws. [Adam Tamburin / The Tennessean]

In Montgomery, Alabama, police repeatedly ticketed 49-year-old Harriet Cleveland for driving without insurance and a license. She kept driving because she needed to drop her son off at school and go to work. Unable to pay the fines, she received two years’ probation. Judicial Correction Services then charged her $200 a month, including a $40 “supervision” fee. She couldn’t keep up with the fines, and accrued over $1,000 in private probation fees. After her two-year probation ended, she received a notice from the district attorney demanding nearly $3,000 in payment — far higher than the original fees. The DA had added a 30 percent collection fee. Afraid of arrest, she skipped court. Police later arrested her on a warrant and locked her up for a month, where she slept on the floor. [Sarah Stillman / The New Yorker]

Prosecutors charge fines and fees for their own diversion programs and, in some jurisdictions, for the prosecution itself.

In Atlanta, Marcy Willis used her credit card to pay for a rental car for her friend. He gave her cash, and then disappeared. She eventually recovered the car and returned it, but the state nonetheless charged her with felony theft. It offered the single mother of five a chance at pretrial diversion, where, after three months of classes and community service, her case would be dismissed and her record expunged. But she could not afford the $690 it would cost her to participate. [Shaila Dewan and Andrew W. Lehren / New York Times]

In Charlotte, North Carolina, police arrested Rahman Bethea for embezzling video equipment from the hotel where he worked. Because this was his first offense, he was eligible to participate in the city’s deferred prosecution program. Prosecutors would dismiss his case if he completed certain requirements. He was required to pay $899 to participate, but because he had only $100, he could not get into the program. [Michael Gordon / Charlotte Observer]

In Coachella and Indio, California, courts use a private law firm to prosecute individuals accused of violating city ordinances that carry small fines. Several months after being charged, those accused find a surprise in the mail: a bill for the prosecution. While the fine might only be a few hundred dollars, they are responsible for thousands of dollars for the prosecution. One man accused of doing work on his living room without a permit received a bill for $26,000. [Scott Shackford / Reason]

Most people are too poor to pay these fines — so they pay interest.

Known as the “poverty penalty,” fines and fees are often doubled and tripled when an individual cannot make the initial payment. In Washington State, for example, legal financial obligations average $1,347. Those unable to pay the full sum immediately will end up owing much more. The state charges a 12 percent interest rate and a yearly $100 surcharge. [Alana Semuels / The Atlantic]

2. These fines and fees can wreak havoc on people’s lives.

Being unable to pay can result in a range of penalties, including jail time and a suspended license.

The threat of jail time

In 1983, in Bearden v. Georgia, the Supreme Court ruled that people cannot be jailed or have probation revoked because of an inability to pay fines. In reality, judges rarely check on a person’s economic status, and for the most part, people have no lawyer to assist them in asserting their rights. [Alana Semuels / The Atlantic]

In 44 states, judges can send people back to jail if they “willfully” refuse to make payments — a loose term. Sometimes, judges lock up poor individuals because they don’t have a job, claiming their unemployment is pretext for their refusal to pay. [Alana Semuels / The Atlantic]

In El Paso, Texas, which collected $19 million in fines in 2015, the court requires people to pay 25 percent of their traffic-related debt before considering transferring it to a payment plan. If the person can’t make that high a payment, he or she is jailed. [Bobby Blanchard / Dallas Morning News]

Levi Lane was pulled over by the police on the way home from his night shift for driving eight miles over the speed limit. Police arrested him for unpaid traffic tickets — five of them totaling $3,400. Unable to pay that amount on an $8-an-hour job, the judge locked him up. Lane spent 21 days in jail. The judge never asked about his ability to pay, nor did he believe he had to do so. “I’m not required by law to ask anything,” he stated. [Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell / BuzzFeed]

Carina Canaan also found herself in El Paso’s jail. She accrued $3,000 for driving without a license. She couldn’t pay it off, and so she spent 10 nights in jail while pregnant. But that stay didn’t wipe out all of her fees. She still owes surcharges, which prevents her from obtaining a license. Because she needs the license for certain jobs, she has repeatedly been turned down for employment. [Kendall Taggart and Alex Campbell / BuzzFeed]

Driver’s license suspensions

In the majority of states, unpaid court debt can result in a driver’s license suspension. Only four of those states require a hearing to determine whether the person is willfully failing to pay. [Beth Schwartzapfel / The Marshall Project] In 2006, almost 40 percent of suspended licenses in the country occurred because people could not pay traffic tickets or child support, or because of drug possession. [Henry Graber / Slate]

In Kansas, over 100,000 people — one in every 20 adults — had their licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets. [Oliver Morrison / Wichita Eagle]

In Lapeer, Michigan, Shane Moon stopped paying his car insurance to cover other expenses when his girlfriend became pregnant. But he had to drive to construction sites to keep his job. He got pulled over and received a ticket, with a “driver responsibility fee” attached. When he couldn’t pay, his license was suspended — which came with another fee. He kept driving to work, and he kept getting pulled over and receiving tickets and fines. As of September 2017, he was homeless and still could not pay his tickets. [Henry Grabar / Slate]

In Duval County, Florida, between 2012 and 2016, 2,004 people received jaywalking tickets. Unable to pay the $65 fine for something thousands of people do every day, 982 had their driver’s licenses suspended. African Americans were disproportionately affected. While representing 29 percent of the overall county population, they comprised 54 percent of those whose licenses were suspended for jaywalking. [Ben Conarck, Topher Sanders, and Kate Rabinowitz / Florida Times-Union and ProPublica]

Losing a license because of an unpaid fee can lead to a loss of job and social services. Most people need to drive to work and some companies require a license as a prerequisite for employment. A 2007 study showed that one third of licenses suspended in New Jersey were the result of unpaid fees. Forty-two percent of people with suspended licenses subsequently lost their jobs, and half failed to find new ones. Nine out of 10 people lost income. [Henry Grabar / Slate]

Other grave losses

In Houston, a single mother earning $9 an hour received a job offer where she would make $14. But she had an outstanding warrant for nonpayment of a fine, and the employer conditioned her job offer on payment. She couldn’t afford it, and she lost the job. [Texas Appleseed / The High Cost of Jailing Texans for Fines & Fees]

A woman in her 60s lost her subsidized housing because she owed $500 from a decades-old conviction for forging a prescription. She ended up homeless. [Joseph Shapiro / NPR]

3. These fines disproportionately affect people of color.

In Ferguson, the Department of Justice determined that all levels of government — from police to city hall — targeted African Americans for hefty tickets and fines. African Americans made up 85 percent of those stopped by police for vehicle infractions carrying large fines from 2012-14, despite making up just 67 percent of the population. [Michael Martinez / CNN]

In a review of the 50 cities with the highest percentage of revenue coming from fines and fees, using 2012 Census data, Priceonomics found a direct relationship between a high African American population and high fees. It discovered that these places have African American populations five times greater than the national average. Jurisdictions with high populations of white people simply did not issue as many fines.

Dan Kopf / Priceonomics

4. It is unclear how much revenue these fines and fees actually provide.

As a report from the Criminal Justice Policy Program at Harvard Law School points out, the financial benefits of fines and fees may be illusory. Most places do not track how much it costs to actually collect criminal justice debt—the cost of jail time, the cost of arrest, the cost of issuing a warrant, not to mention the economic cost to an area when someone loses a job.

5. Despite media attention on this issue, some places are doubling down on these practices.

Some judges in North Carolina have waived the state’s hefty fees, described earlier. But a 2017 state law cripples their ability to do so. Before judges show even the slightest bit of compassion toward indigent defendants, they must notify every agency entitled to the funds, which often includes corrections, police and schools. Those groups then have a right to contest the waiver. Defense lawyers and advocates worry that this could lead to fewer fee waivers—and more people locked up because they can’t pay. [Joseph Neff / The Marshall Project]

6. But the tide has started to turn. Legal challenges are mounting and some states are pushing through reform.

Around the country, lawyers are challenging the constitutionality of both debtors’ prisons and the practice of suspending licenses for inability to pay fines and fees.

In Nashville, Tennessee, lawyers successfully argued the city traps people in a permanent cycle of poverty by suspending licenses for unpaid debt. The district judge agreed, calling the practice unconstitutional. “If a person has no resources to pay a debt,” federal Judge Aleta Trauger wrote, “he cannot be threatened or cajoled into paying it; he may, however, become able to pay it in the future. But taking his driver’s license away sabotages that prospect.” [Dave Boucher / The Tennessean]

A federal judge in New Orleans recently ruled that state judges regularly violate the Constitution by jailing people unable to pay the fines those same judges had assessed. Many of the plaintiffs spent several days in jail with no hearings on their ability to pay. The federal judge described the two conflicts of interest that exist when a judge first sets the fine intended to support the court’s coffers, and then again when the judge sets penalties for the person’s inability to pay that fine. “So long as the judges control and heavily rely on fines and fees revenue … the judges’ adjudication of plaintiffs’ ability to pay those fines and fees offends due process.” [Matt Sledge / The Advocate]

In Sherwood, Arkansas, a Little Rock suburb, lawyers sued because the town locked up people who couldn’t pay fees. The suit targeted Sherwood’s “hot check” court, where officials charged thousands of dollars to people accused of writing checks with insufficient funds, even if they were just $15 short. In November 2017, Sherwood settled the case. People can now do community service to cover the fines. [Jon Herskovitz / Reuters]

7. Legislative bodies are also changing their practices.

In Washington, D.C., the D.C. Council approved legislation preventing the city from suspending licenses for missed court hearings or unpaid traffic tickets. Those with outstanding fines will have the option of paying them off through community service.  This will have a significant effect: Between 2010 and 2017, the city suspended 126,000 licenses. [Reis Thebault / Washington Post]

In Maine, the legislature this year passed a bill to end automatic license suspensions for missed fines.  Although the governor vetoed the bill, the legislature overwhelmingly overrode the veto, and the measure will now become law. [Reis Thebault / Washington Post]

In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors recently voted to eliminate fees associated with the criminal justice system, including fees for probation, electronic monitoring, and being booked into jail.  While people will still be subject to the state’s mandatory fees, San Francisco will now be the only city to decline to charge discretionary fees. [Joanna Weiss and Lisa Foster / Washington Post]

The California State Legislature passed a law in 2017 outlawing the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic fines. The law does not apply retroactively to the 488,000 people who have suspended licenses for unpaid traffic fines or missed court appearances. [Associated Press]

The Nebraska Legislature passed a law requiring those with unpaid fines to appear before a judge rather than automatically receiving jail time. The judge can dismiss the fines or assign community service hours. [Julia Shumway / Associated Press]

What Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court Would Mean for Criminal Justice

Trump’s pick to replace Justice Kennedy would most likely undermine the rights of criminal defendants and stall progress on solitary confinement, prisoners’ rights, and the death penalty.

Trump announces Brett Kavanaugh as his nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court Would Mean for Criminal Justice

Trump’s pick to replace Justice Kennedy would most likely undermine the rights of criminal defendants and stall progress on solitary confinement, prisoners’ rights, and the death penalty.

In 2015, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurrence in a death penalty case to sound the alarm on solitary confinement. The prisoner in that case, Davis v. Ayala, had probably “spent 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot.” Kennedy noted that such confinement was typical on death row and lamented “the human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” which produces anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicide. Kennedy argued that prison conditions are too often ignored: “prisoners are shut away—out of sight, out of mind,” and the “judiciary may be required” to intervene.

Two years later, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a similar dissenting opinion and voted to stay an execution based on a prisoner’s time in solitary confinement. “If extended solitary confinement alone raises serious constitutional questions,” he wrote, “then 20 years of solitary confinement, all the while under threat of execution, must raise similar questions, and to a rare degree, and with particular intensity.”

Together, the opinions opened a window for the Supreme Court to mandate urgently needed and constitutionally required reform. In the United States, about 25,000 prisoners are serving a substantial part of their sentences in solitary confinement, with 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners held in solitary at any given time. This includes children, for whom the effects of isolation are especially severe. With the conservative Kennedy and moderate Breyer inviting legal challenge, there was hope for meaningful judicial review.

But then Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, President Trump nominated D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh to replace him, and the window to challenge solitary confinement in the Supreme Court will almost certainly slam shut if he is confirmed.

Kavanaugh was chosen precisely for his party loyalty, conservative ideology, and “central casting” background as a white male swaddled in the prestige of elite private schools and powerful government institutions. Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana had said that if Justice Neil Gorsuch has “got a twin, let’s nominate him,” and that is effectively what happened. Kavanaugh and Gorsuch went to prep school together. They clerked for Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court together. And they were both appointed by President George W. Bush to a federal circuit court before Trump picked them for the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh and Gorsuch also share similar views on criminal justice, each protecting the rights of criminal defendants in a limited set of cases. Indeed, Kavanaugh has received praise from criminal justice and civil liberties advocates for his laudable concerns about overcriminalization. But the same was true of Gorsuch, and his first vote of consequence on the Supreme Court led to an execution.

Overall, replacing Kennedy with Kavanaugh will only mean fewer legal protections for people ensnared in the criminal justice system. It’s unlikely that Kavanaugh would ever provide the decisive fifth vote for a criminal defendant or victim of police brutality. If he joins the Court’s more liberal members in a criminal justice case, Justice Gorsuch and perhaps Chief Justice Roberts would most likely join as well. But on certain issues—particularly conditions of confinement and the death penalty—Kavanaugh would solidify a conservative majority where Kennedy had been a potential vote, and even a leading voice, in favor of a more humane justice system.

Consider Kennedy’s pivotal role on issues of prisoner rights and excessive punishments. In 2011, he wrote the 5-4 opinion ordering California to release thousands of prisoners to reduce overcrowding. On capital punishment, he wrote 5-4 opinions holding that it is unconstitutional to execute minors and to impose the death penalty for rape. In 2010, Kennedy wrote the 6-3 opinion in Graham v. Florida holding that juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole for non-homicide offenses, and in 2012 he joined the 5-4 opinion in Miller v. Alabama holding that mandatory life without parole for juveniles is unconstitutional.

With Kennedy as the fifth Republican appointee, it was plausible that the Court would not only address long-term solitary confinement on death row but eliminate death row altogether. Kavanaugh’s confirmation would abruptly stall further progress in these areas.

Kavanaugh’s views on criminal justice are defined by a deference to law enforcement and a broad view of executive power that will enable more stops and searches, more arrests, more prosecutions, and an overly punitive justice system.

In a speech last year, Kavanaugh praised the work of former Chief Justice William Rehnquist to eliminate constitutional protections for criminal defendants and to uphold the constitutionality of the death penalty. Kavanaugh called Rehnquist his “judicial hero,” and singled out his efforts to eliminate the Fourth Amendment’s exclusionary rule—which bars the admission of unlawfully obtained evidence at trial—and to weaken Miranda v. Arizona, the seminal ruling that requires police to notify suspects of their rights to remain silent and to have counsel present before interrogating them.

Kavanaugh’s record on the D.C. Circuit reflects these views. In a concurrence, he wrote that the National Security Agency’s expansive warrantless surveillance program that collected phone data on hundreds of millions of Americans did not constitute a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. And he argued, in dissent, that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he stopped a defendant without probable cause and unzipped his jacket to search for evidence.

In a series of decisions, Kavanaugh deferred to the executive branch on detainees held in Guantánamo Bay, defending the controversial use of military commissions to prosecute terror suspects and limiting the rights of detainees to challenge their confinement in federal court.

And on sentencing, last month Kavanaugh dissented from a decision that vacated a prison sentence because the trial judge improperly sought to make an example of the defendant without explaining why he was singled out for especially harsh treatment. Kavanaugh found this reasoning “confounding.”

Kavanaugh’s concerns about overcriminalization, on the other hand, are more circumscribed. He has argued that criminal prosecution requires clear notice of what constitutes a crime and what the consequences of that crime will be. Like Gorsuch, he has specifically questioned the “phalanx of federal regulatory crimes” that criminalize a widening swath of behavior without sufficient notice or guidance.

In United States v. Burwell, for example, the D.C. Circuit (including Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s unsuccessful nominee to replace Justice Antonin Scalia) upheld a 20-year sentence enhancement for a man who used automatic weapons in a series of bank robberies, even though the government did not prove that the man knew that his weapon fired automatically. In dissent, Kavanaugh argued that “imposing an extra 20 years of mandatory imprisonment based on a fact the defendant did not know is unjust.”

But Justice Gorsuch’s record serves as a cautionary tale against drawing broad conclusions from Burwell. The rationale of Kavanaugh’s Burwell dissent mirrors much of what then-Judge Gorsuch wrote on the Tenth Circuit about the risks of overcriminalization. He too dissented over people who “sit in prison because … case law allows the government to put them there without proving a statutorily specified element of the charged crime.”

Yet on the Supreme Court, Gorsuch has evinced hostility toward criminal defendants across a variety of issues, often in dissent. He dissented when the Court held that police need a warrant to surveil suspects using cell tower data. In capital cases, he dissented when the Court provided relief to a Black defendant sentenced to die by a juror who used a racial slur to describe Black people and he dissented when the Court held that capital defendants have the right to maintain their innocence at trial, even when their lawyer wants to admit guilt. Gorsuch also joined an opinion holding that noncitizens detained under the Immigration and Nationality Act are not entitled to periodic bond hearings.

Adding Kavanaugh to the already conservative Roberts Court will only make it more so. Once promising efforts to improve conditions for prisoners and to further reduce if not eliminate executions would turn doubtful. But that is just the near term. Kavanaugh is only 53; Justice Gorsuch is 50. If Kavanaugh is confirmed, the once high-school classmates will serve on the high court together for decades.

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Why This Mother And Daughter Were Jailed Without Being Charged With A Crime

A teenage girl spent weeks in jail, and her mother is still locked up on a $150,000 bond.

Illustration by Anagraph / Photos: (foreground) Metropolitan Museum of Art; (background) stevecoleimages, Getty

Why This Mother And Daughter Were Jailed Without Being Charged With A Crime

A teenage girl spent weeks in jail, and her mother is still locked up on a $150,000 bond.

Shantay Corley and her daughter, Zinya Corley, have not been accused of any crime. Yet they inspired a manhunt across New York State, were arrested in Manhattan, and hauled back to Syracuse to sit in jail.  Zinya, 17, was held in solitary confinement, according to her lawyer, for weeks before she was bailed out. Her mother is still sitting in jail on a $150,000 bond.

The mother and daughter were tracked down and arrested solely because prosecutors want to force them to testify as witnesses in a trial.

According to the police reports, on the morning of June 10, 2017, in Syracuse, Samuel Dixon was shot multiple times in his blue Toyota Solara. Police found him sitting in the driver’s seat, slumped over the passenger’s side. Within just a day or two, after canvassing some neighbors, detectives began to form a narrative about the shooting: Vernon Brockington, 35, had shot Dixon when Dixon had pulled up in front of Brockington’s home. There was neighborhood chatter that the two had been in a fight the night before.

Witnesses could not identify the shooter, but Shantay Corley, Brockington’s partner, and  Zinya, then 16, were in the home at the time. Police and prosecutors quickly zeroed in on them to pump for information.

Things escalated quickly thanks to a legal practice known as material witness warrants. Material witness warrants are meant to be used to arrest and detain people in unusual cases where prosecutors can prove that their testimony is essential to a case and that there’s reason to think the witness will not appear in court. The practice has recently come under fire in many places for enabling the detention of innocent people. These material witnesses aren’t always entitled to counsel (although the Corleys were assigned counsel in this case by the judge because they faced jail time). While the warrants are supposed to be rare, they represent an abuse of power that is often overused by certain prosecutors to force reluctant witnesses to testify.

In the Corleys’ case, police had already interrogated the mother and daughter several times. Police came across Shantay Corley the day of the shooting as she carried shopping bags into her home, but she refused to talk extensively to them, giving “one word answers,” and muttering “fuck you,” according to the police reports obtained by The Appeal

Shortly after the shooting, police and the Onondaga County district attorney’s office interviewed Zinya and Shantay about Brockington’s behavior that day. According to the police report, Zinya was picked up at her high school and taken to the police station to be questioned alone, without a parent. She told detectives that she had seen Brockington the morning of the shooting and had watched him change clothes after the gunshots were fired, which led investigators to think that her mother knew something more.

Shantay, eight months pregnant with Brockington’s child, was interviewed multiple times by police detectives both before and after being read her Miranda rights. At one point,  the detectives, who were executing a search warrant, climbed into Shantay’s home through an open window and then called her to come home for an interview, according to a police report. When she resisted answering the detectives’ questions, according to the official report on that interview, the detectives began to fill out the paperwork to arrest Shantay and asked her for people they could contact to take custody of her children. The police then told her she could “help her situation” if she corroborated her daughter’s narrative. Detectives’ notes indicate that they left her alone for about two hours in an interrogation room before she complied with a statement that matched her daughter’s. She also allowed detectives to look through her cell phone history and search her car. Notes describe her as “uncooperative” and “deceitful.”

The trial was expected to begin April 9, but on that date, the Corleys were nowhere to be found. This began a manhunt, which, by late May, led investigators to Manhattan, where mother and daughter were found living with relatives. There were conflicting accounts of what happened: The local news initially made the incident appear as though the two were in hiding, but Shantay’s lawyer told the court they were staying with her mother after they were evicted in April.

An assistant prosecutor told the local news that they had expended “a significant amount of resources” to find them. They were arrested and taken before Judge Matthew Doran, who allowed them to be held in jail.

According to Shantay’s lawyer, Tylyn Bozeman, her client was never served with a valid subpoena. There was no certificate of service. She told The Appeal that she  still had not even received documents like Shantay’s grand jury testimony, which could shed light on why the prosecutor thinks that her testimony is essential to the case.

Just last month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that misusing material witness warrants was unconstitutional. The case involved Alexina Simon, who was arrested and detained by the Queens DA’s office for over two days for questioning as a potential witness in a case involving police misconduct.

Police said they tried to talk to Simon over the phone and at her home.  Investigators then went to Simon’s place of work—a Manhattan hotel where she was a housekeeper—and threatened to cuff her in public. It turned out that Alexina Simon was the wrong person; officials actually wanted to talk to her daughter, Alexandra. Even then, police still took Simon to the DA’s office for questioning. She sued.

This wasn’t the first time New York district attorneys have used questionable tactics. Brooklyn investigators used to routinely detain witnesses in hotel rooms before they capitulated. And in 2006, Russell Hernandez was incarcerated on Rikers Island for two years because the Bronx DA’s office wanted him to testify against two men who had allegedly robbed him in 2004. Hernandez, a native of Trinidad, was a green-card holder who was confined to immigration detention in 2006 based on a prior arrest. He was then transferred to Rikers and told that he should testify against the two accused men—who had threatened to hurt Hernandez—because he “would be deported anyway.” Hernandez did not testify and in 2008 he was summarily transferred back to immigration detention where he made bail.

The practice of arresting material witnesses stretches far beyond New York. In April of this year, the prosecutor in Salt Lake County, Utah jailed a teenager to ensure her testimony against a person accused of shooting someone. Alexus Irizarry, 18, was in a truck with friends when her companion was shot in the head. She later missed a court date because she was recovering from surgery. Despite her mother’s frantic calls, it took over a month before she was assigned counsel and released from jail.

When Irizarry finally testified, she was fully shackled. She later told the Salt Lake Tribune that she did not receive medical care for her post-surgical recovery in jail and that the incident triggered anxiety and depression over her friend’s death.

And a lawsuit by Civil Rights Corps and the ACLU has alleged that New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro has been jailing witnesses or threatening them with jail as a way to force them to meet with prosecutors. The complaint asserts that the DA’s office has requested at least 150 material witness warrants in the past five years, many of which were based on false reasons or omissions. As a result, innocent witnesses and victims of crimes have spent days and even weeks in jail. Many had bond amounts higher than the person accused of the crime.

Prosecutors argue that material witness warrants and other coercive measures are necessary because the “no snitch” culture means that witnesses and victims are reluctant to report crimes, much less testify in court against people who are their friends and relatives. Perhaps unsurprisingly,  getting witnesses to show up is an exercise in patience and skill.

Onondaga County DA William Fitzpatrick, whose office requested the Corleys’ warrants, claimed that his office had witness cooperation issues in 14 cases in 2014 and 2015. A Syracuse police spokesperson told the Post-Standard that 70 percent of victims refuse to cooperate with police. And Fitzpatrick added that material witness warrants were on the rise, even though his office doesn’t count them.

“Witness cooperation continues to be the number one challenge in every case that I handle,” Onondaga County Assistant District Attorney Rob Moran, the prosecutor on the Brockington case, told The Appeal. “Material witness warrants are a last resort. I do everything I can to avoid asking for one.”

But the strong-arming of witnesses and victims with threats of jail time and separation from children carries its own risks of false imprisonment and retraumatization. Coercing witnesses can also lead to false testimony and wrongful convictions, as the ACLU and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained in a brief supporting Simon’s claim against the city. Arresting innocent people also erodes trust in government, especially when the state itself seems to presuppose dishonesty.

It’s unclear if Onondaga County law enforcement has tried to address the root causes of the cooperation problem, or offer other incentives to testify beyond the threat of arrest. One Syracuse mother refused to allow her teenage son to testify against an alleged shooter, telling the Post-Standard the DA’s office “[treats] everybody like you’re a gang member.” She said the office offered no witness protection or other measures to ensure her son’s safety.

Even if witnesses still don’t want to cooperate with the prosecution, that’s not a good enough reason to incarcerate them, Cody Wofsy, a staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and one of the lead attorneys in the Simon case, said in a phone interview. “The fact that the police or prosecutor is unhappy with the witness’s unwillingness to answer questions in private, or unhappy with the answers they do provide, is not enough to lock up innocent people,” he said.

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