ACLU takes on Denver suburb

By Danielle Krolewicz

Last year, Colorado state legislature passed HB 14-1061, a law banning debtor’s prison practices by mandating due process protections to prevent courts from jailing individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees. 

However, Willburn Taylor, of Wheat Ridge, was jailed in March 2014 due to his inability to pay a $100 fine for panhandling. Taylor was arrested after police found him with a blank piece of cardboard and pen, with the intention of making a sign to request charity from passing motorists.

He plead guilty, and stated he was destitute and could not afford the fine. Despite this, the judge gave Taylor a deadline to pay; failure to pay meant a warrant would be issued for his arrest. Because of fines and fees, the amount Taylor owed grew to $275. Wheat Ridge Municipal Judge Christopher Randall negotiated a contempt of court guilty plea with Taylor and he was sentenced to three days in jail, which he served immediately.

The Wheat Ridge Municipal Court decision regarding Taylor directly violated the law, according to American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado (ACLU). The ACLU asked the court to rescind Taylor’s conviction. The request is currently being reviewed.

“It is illegal to treat someone differently because they do not have the money,” said John Krieger, communications director for the ACLU’s Colorado chapter. Jailing people because they are unable to pay fines has been banned by the U.S Supreme Court, and has been deemed unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court, under both the U.S. Constitution and the State Constitution.

“A lot of these start as arrests and citations for status crimes that shouldn’t be crimes in the first place— sleeping in the park, missing curfew, camping bans, solicitation, sit-lie ordinances, etc.,” said Krieger. “The fine or fee is never collected, and it costs taxpayers as much as $100 a night to put someone in jail.”

“This case may be the tip of the iceberg,” stated Krieger. A recent ACLU study showed that many other courts are also in violation of the legislature banning “debtor’s prison.” ■