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How Fines and Fees Criminalize Poverty: Explained

How Fines and Fees Criminalize Poverty: Explained


In our Explainer series, Fair Punishment Project lawyers help unpackage 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 monthly 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. [Sarah Stillman / The New Yorker]
  • 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. [Jonathan Silver / Texas Tribune]
  • 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. [German Lopez / Vox]

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. 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.

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 & Alex Campbell / Buzzfeed]

  • Ferguson, Missouri is probably the city best known for abusing this practice. In a city with a Fortune 500 Company, Emerson Electric, rather than raise taxes, Ferguson 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 & 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 — 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 also impose astronomical fees on those charged with crimes, fees known as legal financial obligations (LFOs). 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 / The News & Observer]

2 Private probation companies often levy their own fines and fees, and they jail people for non-payment.

  • In Tennessee, the private probation company, Providence Community Corrections, charged people monthly supervision fees along with fees for nearly every required service, including mandatory drug tests and required community service. If the person couldn’t pay, they were jailed. Some “clients” reported selling plasma to avoid going to jail for non-payment. [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 / 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 child at school and take her son 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% 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]

3 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 pre-trial 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 & 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. Unfortunately, prosecutors required him to pay $899 to participate. Because he only had $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 on the hook 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]

4 Most people are too poor to pay these fines — and 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]

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

First, non-payment can lead to 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 indigency, 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 impoverished 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 & 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 ten nights in jail while pregnant. But that stay didn’t even 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 & Alex Campbell / BuzzFeed]

In 43 states and the District of Columbia, unpaid court debt can trigger 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 / The Witchita 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. He is now homeless and still cannot pay his tickets. [Henry Graber / Slate]
  • In Duval County, Florida, between 2012 and 2016, 2,004 people received jaywalking tickets. Unable to pay the $65 fine for an activity thousands of people do every day, 982 had their driver’s licenses suspended. African Americans were disproportionately singled out for this punishment. While representing 29 percent of the overall county population, they were 54 percent of those whose licenses were suspended for jaywalking. [Ben Conarck & Topher Sanders / Florida Times-Union & 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 ten people lost income. [Henry Graber / Slate]

  • 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 non-payment 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]

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% of those stopped by police for vehicle infractions carrying large fines, despite making up just 67% of the population. [Michael Martinez / CNN]
  • In a review of the 50 cities with the highest percentage of revenue coming from fines and fees, 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

6 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.

7 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 new state law cripples their ability to do so. Before a judge shows even one iota of compassion toward indigent defendants, he or she 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]

8 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 argued the city traps people in a permanent cycle of poverty by suspending licenses for unpaid debt. The District Judge agreed and ordered the state to reinstate the licenses of the two named plaintiffs. There are similar lawsuits pending in Virginia, California, Michigan, and Montana. [Beth Schwartzapfel / The Marshall Project]
  • This month, a federal judge in New Orleans 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 hearing 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, outside of Little Rock, Arkansas, 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, Sherwood settled the case. People can now do community service to cover the fines. [Jon Herskovitz / Business Insider]

9 Legislative bodies are also changing their practices.

  • The California State Legislature recently passed a law outlawing the practice of suspending driver’s licenses because of unpaid traffic fines. Unfortunately, the law does not apply retroactively. This is bad news for the 488,000 people who currently have suspended licenses for unpaid traffic fines or missed court appearances. [AP / Los Angeles Times]
  • In Washington, D.C., the mayor started a pilot program that allows those released from prison to get their driver’s licenses back, even if they have unpaid traffic fines. They can either pay a reduced fee in the beginning, or defer payment for a year. “The №1 reason for recently released men and women being incarcerated . . . is for driving without a valid license, which can also lead to additional charges for failing to stop and other related crimes,” a spokesperson for the office wrote. [Beth Schwartzapfel / The Marshall Project]
  • 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 fine or assign community service hours. [Julia Shumway / US News]

Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant

Hai Song shares a photo of his sister Yang, who leapt to her death during an NYPD vice operation late last month. Posted in May, Yang captioned the photo “Have been feeling blue for a long time. Let’s get some sunshine.”
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Family, Former Attorney of Queens Woman Who Fell to Her Death in Vice Sting Say She Was Sexually Assaulted, Pressured to Become an Informant


Yang Song fell four stories onto a sidewalk in Flushing, Queens on the night of November 25th. An officer with the New York City Police Department accompanied her, unconscious, to New York Presbyterian Hospital where doctors placed her on a respirator. They worked for hours: the 35 units of blood they transfused did not take, given the severity of her injuries from the thirty foot fall. NYPD later said that Yang fell from an apartment building on 40th Road while police were attempting to arrest her for allegedly engaging in sex work. These were among the sparse details they released after Yang’s death the following morning. She was 38. The NYPD’s Force Investigation Division, assigned to deaths in custody, would investigate.

Hai Song, Yang’s younger brother, who lives in Shenyang, China, missed two calls from his sister around 6:45 p.m. that night, less than an hour before the fall, according to his WeChat history. Yang had been planning to travel to China to see him on December 15th, and Hai was looking forward to introducing his sister to his four-year-old son. “It feels so painful,” Hai, 35, told The Appeal this week, in Chinese and speaking through a translator. “I missed the last chance to talk to my sister.”

When they heard about Yang’s death, Hai and his 65-year-old mother, Yumei Shi, bought plane tickets. They arrived in New York on December 5th — their first trip to the United States. A taxi dropped them on 40th Road in Flushing, where they knew Yang had worked. Both speak little English. They intend to plan a funeral, seek out a lawyer, and piece together the circumstances of Yang’s death. “Many things are unclear,” Hai said. “The police haven’t provided us a fair explanation.”

Yang’s brother and mother are haunted by details she shared with them over the phone this year. Yang described being sexually assaulted by a man who flashed a badge and gun and claimed to be an undercover cop, they say. Yang also told them that the police urged her to become a confidential informant this fall.

Yang Song’s mother, Yumei Shi, is comforted by her son Hai inside Chu’s Flushing office. Yang’s family flew from China to New York in early December, hoping to learn more about Song’s death.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

“I hope to know the truth,” Shi told The Appeal, also through a translator. “We want to know whether this was a retaliation from the police and they forced her to die.”

This week, outside the apartment where Yang worked, there were still four bouquets of flowers on the threshold. Yang’s confidences have left her mother and brother wary and defensive. While the police maintain that they were not in the room when Yang jumped off the building, both Hai and Shi insist that she would not kill herself. In the absence of a thorough explanation from the NYPD, they are left with the stories Yang shared with them about her life in Flushing — and of the police she said she felt harassed and intimidated by.


Michael Chu, founder of the Flushing Neighborhood Watch Team, has an office on 40th Road across the street from where Yang fell. The walls are papered over with layers of clippings from local Chinese-American newspapers. He’s worked there since 1987, offering everything from immigration and attorney referrals to marital dispute mediation. He’s also friendly with the women who work in the massage business on the block and engage in sex work — he calls them the “sisters” — and defends them against taunting teenagers.

“When they are in this type of business, then nobody care,” Chu told The Appeal. “So some police just take advantage and make situation worse and make the circumstances tough.”

Locals referred Yang’s family to Chu as soon as they arrived in New York last week, and he’s been helping them facilitate media requests ever since. On Tuesday, Chu hosted Shi and Hai over sweet coffee in styrofoam cups. He ringed chairs around a folding table stacked with front-page articles about Yang’s death from the Chinese-American press featuring her social media selfies.

Hai thumbed through his Chinese mobile phone, bringing up photos of the room where his sister worked, which he had taken just days before. Hai held up one image: on her balcony, there was still a carton of eggs and two apples in a red plastic bag, now resting in the fresh snow. “When we came here, my mother and I found many facts that are inconsistent with the media reports,” he said. “And many facts are buried under the surface.”

“My sister indeed was a kind girl. She was not like what people might think she was,” Hai added. “She even sent back milk formula from the U.S. for my son. And chocolates, presents as well. She often called my parents to talk to them even when she was busy because she knew this would make them happy.”

A hard worker, Yang “never had a vacation, even for the New Year, even the holiday time,” according to Hai. “She worked for her dream. She was not someone who likes to give up.”

Yang moved to Flushing in 2013, according to Hai, along with her 78-year-old husband Zhang Zhou. Before that, the couple ran two Vietnamese restaurants on the island of Saipan — a U.S. Commonwealth in the western Pacific Ocean, about three-and-a-half hours south of Japan by plane. “My sister worked with the staff in the dining hall and her husband worked inside the kitchen as the cook,” Hai said. Yang and Zhou married there in the early 2000s, to the frustration of Yang’s parents, who did not approve “because her husband is so much older than her,” according to Shi. The couple had economic success until the Tohoku earthquake and Tsunami in 2011. Tourism took a massive hit, and Zhou had American citizenship, so the couple moved to Flushing, where Yang acquired temporary green card status and hoped to eventually open her own spa. But work in the city was tough: she provided home health care to her ailing husband for a about year, her mother said. She also worked as a waiter, and eventually told her mother that she was working “for a foot spa.” Zhou also didn’t know about Yang engaging in sex work, according to Hai, until he “learned it from a friend.”

The door to the room where Yang Song’s final interaction with an NYPD officer allegedly took place. Since her death, the door has been secured with a cable lock and mourners have brought bouquets of flowers.
Scott Heins for The Appeal

Vice stings targeting so-called “massage parlors” exploded in recent years, primarily in Chinese immigrant neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn. According to a 2017 report from the Urban Institute and the Legal Aid Society, arrests of Asian-identified people in New York City charged with both unlicensed massage and prostitution increased by 2,700 percent between 2012 and 2016. Yang herself was arrested and charged with prostitution on September 27th, two months before her death, during a vice operation in the same building. That case was open when she fell, the next court date scheduled for December 1st.

“She worked for her dream. She was not someone who likes to give up.”

At the same time, other anxieties were brewing. Yang and her mother spoke often enough that when she didn’t call for six days in September, Shi was distraught. When they did make contact, what she learned concerned her more.

Shi recalled the conversation in Chu’s office Tuesday, her brown tweed coat pulled closed over her chest. “She said, ‘Mom, I was … was… was harassed by the police,’” Shi recalled. Yang told her mother that a man claimed he was a police officer and flashed a badge at her, then made sexual demands. “I asked her whether she satisfied his demand. She said ‘I didn’t dare to not to. He pulls out a gun.’”

“She also told me [that] when he got what he wanted, the police officer said, ‘If you report this to the police, I would…’ [and] he threatened her. And, ‘If you don’t report it, I’ll protect you.’”

Yang confided in her mother about reporting the assault to the police, Shi said. Yang also described the assault to attorney Mingli Chen, her immigration lawyer and informal legal consult, and told him that she filed a complaint against the man with the NYPD. “She was asked to go to precinct to point out a person in the lineup,” Chen told The Appeal. “She told me immediately she was able to point out the guy. Seemingly she never received any follow-up.” The NYPD denied the existence of a formal complaint filed by Yang.

Before the fatal sting this November, Shi said, Yang also confided that police had asked her to become a confidential informant: to “report on other masseuses.” According to Yang, a follow-up meeting with NYPD was scheduled for early this month.

“They said: ‘We can pay you. But you have to sign a contract with us,’” Shi recalled. Shi discouraged her daughter from agreeing to be an informant. Yang was also hesitant. According to her mother, she told police, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to snitch.”

Chen, the immigration lawyer, told The Appeal that Yang confided in him as well about the informant request. “She told me the precinct asked her whether she wanted to be an informant,” he recalled this week. “She was [feeling] pressure [and wondered] does she have any risk? Any danger?”

The NYPD did not comment to The Appeal about whether Yang was being recruited as a confidential informant.


Setting aside the unknowns in Yang’s case, Chu of Flushing Community Neighborhood Watch acknowledges the systemic pressure Yang and other masseuses deal with on a daily basis. “There’s social, economic, police — many factor which create this kind of pressure,” he said.

Predatory encounters like the ones Yang’s family described are not uncommon. One NYPD officer, Michael Golden, was suspended after a department trial in June after being accused of groping and having sex with six women, including Chinese immigrants, during undercover prostitution stings.

Police “engage in inappropriate sexual contact with clients,” Leigh Latimer, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society who represents clients charged with prostitution, told The Appeal. In any given case, though, it is hard to know whether an assailant who claims to be a police officer is actually part of NYPD. In 2016, a traffic agent posing as an NYPD officer assaulted two sex workers after flashing a badge, and was charged in 2016 with sexual abuse and criminal impersonation.

“We certainly have clients who have reported to us that someone had identified themselves as a police officer, but we don’t really know if they were police officers or they weren’t,” Latimer said. Either way, “This creates fear and mistrust.”

Informant recruitment is also common, Latimer added. “Vice teams do try to recruit women they have arrested to work as informants for them in a variety of contexts.”

Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at UC Irvine School of Law, testified before the House of Representatives in 2007 about the prevalence of confidential informants in domestic policing.

“Police rely especially heavily on confidential informants to get warrants in inner city zip codes,” Natapoff said. “As a result, many individuals are likely to be informing or trying to inform at any given time. In these communities, therefore, ‘snitching’ is a fact of life.”

For 30 years, Michael Chu has worked as an advocate and neighborhood watch leader in the Flushing immigrant community. His office sits directly across 40th road from the massage parlor where Yang Song worked, and he has become a resource for her family since her death.

Activists have planned a rally for Yang on Sunday, December 17th outside of the 109th Precinct in Flushing to coincide with the international Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. The Queens event is organized by several groups working in New York and nationally to provide assistance and support for sex workers who are incarcerated. Yang’s mother and brother say they plan to attend as well.

Yang’s death “confirmed yet again our worst fears,” Red, an organizer with the NYC contingent of Support Ho(s)e, told In Justice Today. “These police raids are deadly…. the tactics being used by law enforcement only serve to intimidate, incarcerate, deport, criminalize sex working people and in Yang’s case kill.”

“From what we can see, this is murder,” Red added. “Whether indirectly or directly, her death is on the NYPD. We had to do something.”

Since Yang’s death, women who work in the parlors on 40th Road are less visible. “The parlors are open, but no more girls stand outside,” Chu told The Appeal. “Not like previously, soliciting on the street.” Yang’s family has spoken with a few lawyers this week, and they’re eager to pursue legal action. Chu, who is facilitating the meetings, is hopeful that Yang’s death will compel the NYPD to stop massage parlor raids altogether.

“From what we can see, this is murder…. Whether indirectly or directly, her death is on the NYPD. We had to do something.”

“In the past three, five, seven years, all over Flushing and other ethnic communities, there was a dramatic increase in [sexual] services,” he said. “And yes, it did create a degenerate environment. Like, young kids and students passing by and you see them soliciting the men in the street.”

But that’s only half of the story, he continued. “It’s a life, okay? And you cannot just — ” Chu made a sharp snapping sound with his fingers.

“No matter what kind of profession or service you provide, a life is the most important thing to respect,” Chu added. “There’s a lot we need to do to improve. We want the truth, the real truth… we all have to learn something from this.”

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On Staten Island, a Lawsuit Claims Collaboration Between Judges and Prosecutors

Richmond County District Attorney Michael McMahon

On Staten Island, a Lawsuit Claims Collaboration Between Judges and Prosecutors


A lawsuit filed in federal court in Manhattan alleges that one of the borough’s top judges only symbolically stepped aside from criminal cases when her husband, Michael McMahon, was elected the borough’s District Attorney in 2015. The plaintiff, a former chief clerk for Staten Island Supreme Court, claims that the judge worked behind the scenes to put cases in front of less lenient judges in order to benefit prosecutors.

In the lawsuit, former chief clerk Michael Pulizotto says that he secretly recorded hundreds of hours of conversations shortly after he began the job in 2015 — conversations that he claims show Justice Judith McMahon steering cases away from judges she deemed “defense-oriented.” After her husband announced his plans to run for district attorney, Justice McMahon formally relinquished her duties over criminal matters, which she had overseen in her capacity as an administrative judge, so as to avoid a conflict of interest. But a recording taken by Pulizotto, which was included in the lawsuit brief, captures Justice Stephen Rooney, who was put in charge of criminal court following McMahon’s reassignment, saying that McMahon was “in the criminal lane” and was making decisions about criminal cases in the courthouse.

In 2016, Justice McMahon’s husband Michael McMahon created a new section of criminal court, Part N, to focus on narcotics cases following a rise in opioid-related deaths in Staten Island. Justice McMahon found that the judge presiding over Part N offered the prosecution more favorable trials, Pulizotto’s lawsuit alleges — so she purposefully sent cases there by making drug offenses the top charge in many criminal cases. For example, the lawsuit claims that Justice McMahon sent a violent crime to the narcotics court because a joint was found in the defendant’s pocket.

In March, Pulizotto filed a complaint with the state Office of Court Administration (OCA), which oversees the state’s judges. The lawsuit alleges that OCA told Justice McMahon that Pulizotto had made the recordings, leading to retaliation from both Justice McMahon and the New York State Court Officers’ Association. He was reassigned from his position this September, following what he claims was a concerted harassment effort by the association. According to the lawsuit, association members took issue with Pulizotto’s secret recordings, and threatened Pulizotto and physically intimidated him on multiple occasions.

Members of the Court Officers Association even went so far as to put a giant inflatable rat outside of the Staten Island Supreme Court. The rat had Pulizotto’s name written on the stomach. The harassment allegations against OCA were confirmed by OCA itself, which claimed responsibility for the inflatable rat in a statement to the Staten Island Advance. “We put it up so everybody understood what he did,” Dennis Quirk, president of the New York State Court Officers Association, told the paper.

In the lawsuit, Pulizotto also claims to have observed an intoxicated white court officer calling a black court officer the “n-word” in December 2013.

The legal complaint questions whether the court truly protects constitutional rights “if countless criminal defendants have been unwittingly ‘scammed’ out of their right to a fair and impartial trial by an Administrative Judge — District Attorney team (who are also husband and wife) to avoid ‘defense-oriented judges.’”

In a statement to The Appeal, John Connors, attorney for Justice McMahon, said that his client “denies the baseless allegations contained in Mr. Pulizotto’s frivolous complaint,” and that McMahon looks forward to the complaint’s dismissal.

Many of the allegations against McMahon remain unconfirmed. But the recordings mentioned in the lawsuit, and the excerpts included in the lawsuit and reviewed by The Appeal, do show concern on the part of Justice Rooney about Justice McMahon’s involvement with criminal cases. Justice McMahon was swiftly transferred to Manhattan following the public disclosure of the allegations in September.

Pulizotto’s lawsuit calls for financial compensation for damages, reinstatement as chief clerk, and the installation of a federal monitor of the Staten Island courts system.

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