Is Your Municipal Court Running a Debtor's Prison in Violation of Constitutional or State Law?

Class action lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union or other similar associations have been filed in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, Washington and other jurisdictions asserting that municipal courts are imprisoning indigent individuals for failing to pay monetary fines in violation of their constitutional rights. Could your municipal court be doing the same? This article identifies the claims being asserted and the constitutional underpinnings of these claims as well as decisions pending changes in state law.

Constitutional Claims

The constitutional claims are as follows:

Violations of the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and 6th Amendment (1) asserting a right to court-appointed attorney when the person is incarcerated for nonpayment of a monetary fine without a hearing to determine the person’s ability to pay; and (2) by using the municipality’s police power to collect money which are generally considered as civil judgments absent the statutory protections that a judgment debtor possesses.

Violations of the 4th Amendment by issuing arrest warrants for these persons without first determining if they have the ability to pay or making any other findings of probable cause to issue the arrest warrant and failing to provide for a prompt hearing by the municipal court. 

Constitutional Underpinnings

The U.S. Supreme Court has the ear to these type claims. In Griffin v, Illinois, 351 U.S. 12, 13-14 (1956), Justice Black declared that “[t}here could be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the money he has.” In Williams v Illinois, 399 U.S. 235 (1970), a criminal defendant was required to stay in jail until he could “work off” his fine at the rate of $5.00 per day for his fine of $505.00 after his maximum incarceration of one year for a petty offense. In Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971), a court imposed a fine of $425.00 for a minor traffic offense and incarcerated the defendant because he could not immediately pay the fine. In Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983), a person was sentenced to probation and a $750.00 fine but the court revoked probation when the individual was unable to pay the money.

Pursuant to these cases, it is well established that it is unconstitutional to impose a monetary fine as a penalty for a criminal offense and then convert the fine automatically into a jail sentence if the defendant cannot pay the fine. In short, the Supreme Court mandates that a municipal court could not imprison a defendant for failing to pay a fine until a hearing is held to determine whether the person’s indigence prevents the payment owed.

In Turner v Rogers, 131 S. Ct, 2507 (2011), the Supreme Court set forth the specific safeguards that Due Process requires before a person can be imprisoned for non-payment of a court ordered obligations:

1.    Notice to defendant that the “ability to pay” is a critical issue in a contempt hearing;
2.   Use of a form to elicit relevant financial information;
3.   An opportunity to be heard at the hearing; and
4.   Express findings by the court that the defendant has the ability to pay.

The Supreme Court in M.L.B. v, S.L.J., 519 U.S. 102, 140-41 (1996) ruled that an indigent defendant charged with a municipal ordinance which is not punishable by imprisonment is not entitled to a court-appointed attorney. However, if the defendant is exposed to the possibility of incarceration as well as a fine, then the municipal court should appoint defense counsel.

Proposed Changes in State Law

Since June 5, 2000, 22 O.S. 2011 Section 983 A. has provided “Any defendant found guilty of an offense in any court of this state may be imprisoned for nonpayment of the fine, cost, fee, or assessment when the trial court finds after notice and hearing that the defendant is financially able but refuses or neglects to pay the fine, cost, fee or assessment. A sentence to pay a fine, cost, fee or assessment may be converted into a jail sentence only after a hearing and a judicial determination, memorialized on the record, that the defendant is able to satisfy the fine, cost, fee or assessment by payment but refuses or neglects so to do.”

Perhaps in response to recent criticism across the nation concerning imprisoning those who cannot afford to pay their fines and costs, two bills (HB2383 and HB2960) are now before the 2016 Legislature which would change this statute. HB2960 amends Section 983 A. to provide: “It is the policy of this state that no person shall be incarcerated for debt. No defendant found guilty of an offense of any court of this state shall be imprisoned for nonpayment of debt, including a fine, cost, fee or assessment; provided, however, the trial court may issue a bench warrant for contempt of court when the trial court finds after reasonable notice and hearing that the defendant is financially able to pay but refuses or neglects to pay the fine, cost, fee or assessment.” Section 983 C. is deleted which allowed for a municipal court to send notice to the Department of Public Safety with a recommendation to suspend the driving privileges of the defendant until the fine and costs had been paid. 

HB2383 is similar to the above but also provides that a municipal court can order a person to perform community service in lieu of the payment of the fine, cost, fee or assessment.


To minimize exposure to these class action suits, municipal attorneys should analyze the practices and procedures of their municipal courts to insure that the municipal court is complying with the Supreme Court rulings, and proposed changes in state law. It is imperative that no individual be incarcerated for his inability to pay a fine without a Turner hearing.  


This author recognizes D. Keith Henson, attorney in St. Louis, MO for his contributions in an article printed in For the Defense, February 2016, pg. 14-21, 64.

Is Your Municipal Court Running A Debtors’ Prison in Violation of Constitutional or State Law? was written by Stephen E. Reel, OMAG General Counsel. You may contact the author at The information in this bulletin in intended solely for general informational purposes and should not be construed as or used as a substitute for legal advice or legal opinions with respect to specific situations, since such advice requires an evaluation of precise factual circumstances by an attorney. OMAG does not represent or endorse any group, site or product that may be mentioned in this article.  

                                                                                                                                                            February 2016    



Print Friendly and PDF