Home / Badge Abuse / Town Busted Running “Debtor’s Prison” Must Pay $680K, Sheriff Told to Resign

Town Busted Running “Debtor’s Prison” Must Pay $680K, Sheriff Told to Resign

Alexander, AL — The Southern Poverty Law Center has reached a $680,000 settlement in its lawsuit against the Alabama city of Alexander and its police chief Willie Robinson. The settlement was for depriving 190 of its residents their rights to due process (6th Amendment) and the unlawful seizure of their property (4th Amendment). Sheriff Robinson has even been asked to resign by lawyers representing their client.

Each one of the 190 individuals will receive $500 cash from the city for jailing them for being too poor to pay the fines imposed on them by the town. As reported by AL.com, “Hundreds of impoverished residents have faced unconstitutional and unjust treatment in Alexander City simply because they were too poor to pay fines and fees,” said Sam Brooke, in a press release. Brooke is the SPLC’s deputy legal director. He added, “The shuttering of this modern-day debtors’ prison, along with the monetary award, brings justice to many of the people who were unfairly targeted for being poor.”

The way the injustice flourished was as follows. A resident would receive a speeding ticket, for example. If they were unable to pay, they were arrested, taken to jail, and forced to remain there. While in jail, they would earn $20 a day for just being in jail, and $40 a day for doing laundry, cleaning, or washing police cruisers, until the total sum of the fine was paid in full. Each person was not allowed to go before a judge, nor to have a lawyer present to help in aid in their defense.

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“Around 30 percent of Alexander inhabitants live below the poverty line. Plaintiff Amanda Underwood is one such person, who was jailed twice for not being able to pay her fines. Underwood previously earned $8 an hour and has two young children, according to the SPLC release. After not being able to pay a fine of $205 for a traffic violation, Underwood had to borrow money to secure her release. On a separate occasion, Underwood was fined $250 for driving without a license. She spent five days in jail working off her debt.”

What may have seemed like a quick way for the town to punish offenders — and settle long-standing fines, fees, and court costs — turned out to be a complete violation of Alexander’s residents’ civil rights. Underwood reveled in the victory saying, “I am glad the city is going to pay everyone who they jailed, to try to undo some of the harm they caused…I am so proud that this lawsuit has made a difference. I hope it will help many others, especially those like me who have been unfairly punished for being poor.”

Brooke said Alexander’s settlement out of court is just the latest in a string of successful lawsuits in Alabama which have made a positive impact on civil rights. “Courts are being sued and forced to change their procedures, and judges have been censured and suspended,” Brooke said. “And now a municipality has been forced to pay those it illegally jailed. We hope and believe all courts are now getting the message: It is unacceptable to punish the poor just because of their poverty.”

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There’s very little difference between jailing someone to work off a fine, and selling one’s property to pay for such fines. One is a debtor’s prison and the other results in a debtor’s auction. In both cases, the police benefit from free labor and free revenue generation. Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) has been used for years to punish citizens accused of crimes such as drunk driving, driving with too much cash on hand, or being in possession of marijuana. Hopefully, with wins such as what the SPLC has been able to achieve in Alabama, more progress can likewise be made in CAF cases across the country as well.


  • doucyet

    So what happens now when a person gets a speeding ticket or a DUI and “can’t pay” because they’re spending their money on beer and cigarettes. They get a free pass?

    • The Cat’s Vagina

      No, they get a HEARING to assess what they can actually AFFORD to pay and end up being fined an amount that sucks, but won’t financially devastate them. Flat-rate fines are just another way to brutalize the poor while allowing the rich to easily buy their way out of trouble. If fines were based on income, they would affect everyone equally… which would be HORRIFYING for a badge-licker like yourself.

      • doucyet

        Now Cat, that’s not a bad idea! Basing fines on income. It would burden the court with fact finding before it could impose fines, but that could easily be overcome I believe. Fines are supposed to hurt the pocket book as a deterrent to bad behavior. The death of an innocent by a DUI driver is hard to monetize.
        Now, I’m going to overlook your name calling and not return the favor because in this case it’s not warranted. Take care now.

        • The Cat’s Vagina
          • doucyet

            That’s called voyeurism……(;>)

        • I read that they do that in Finland, a while back a guy (wealthy) got a speeding ticket for some crazy amount like $100,000.

        • Gary Smith

          “Fines are supposed to hurt the pocket book as a deterrent to bad behavior.”

          Fines are meant to generate revenue for the state. The state depends on our “bad behavior” and has no desire to deter us from that behavior.

          • doucyet

            For me. Speeding and receiving that 250.oo citation is a big deterrent.

          • ReverendDraco✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ ᵃᶜᶜᵒᵘᶰᵗ

            Malum prohibidum vs malum in se. . .

            Neither speeding nor DUI are crimes, having no victim.

          • doucyet

            ne unius unciae libram cura valet

            One ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

          • ReverendDraco✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ ᵃᶜᶜᵒᵘᶰᵗ

            Just as every husband needs a wife, every child needs a parent, and every teacher
            needs a pupil, so every crime needs a victim. Not a potential victim or possible victim or a supposed victim, but an actual victim.


            Too many Americans are willing to surrender their liberty without a whimper at the
            slightest whisper by the state of “safety” or “children.”

            He who wants to reform his countrymen must take recourse to persuasion. This alone is the democratic way of bringing about changes. If a man fails in his endeavors to convince other people of the soundness of his ideas, he should blame his own disabilities. He should not ask for a law, that is, for compulsion and coercion by the police.


            Again. . . no victim, no crime. There is no justification to criminalize behavior sans victim – except for authoritarianism, a thing that all rational humans should reject out of hand.

            According to “authorities,” smoking kills hundreds of thousands of people each year. . . yet, smoking rates have plummeted over the last 40 years – not because people have been arrested, fined, and imprisoned. . .

            Using force to “deter” someone from a behavior doesn’t actually deter them. . . only persuasion can effectively accomplish that. Using force only causes the victim of said force to resist and more firmly entrench the behavior ostensibly deterred.

          • doucyet

            That’s all real nice. But allowing drunks to drive until they kill themselves or someone else is just stupidity.

        • hrdcore

          Sad that people go right to name calling than debate…. You have more class than I.

          • doucyet

            Cat is a little harsh at times, she’s just high strung. We have a love hate relationship………. she loves to hate me. (;>)

          • The Cat’s Vagina

            It’s true – I do!

          • hrdcore

            Maybe so. So many times I have seen people go right to name calling on these discussion. A person asks a questions or states a fact they have seen, and the response back seems to be more to shut down the discussion and go to massive negative name calling. Rather than argue their counter point. Seeing what is happening in our collages and university’s seems to validate my concerns. Physical attacks and even attempted to destroy buildings that are having forums that disagree with them.

          • doucyet

            I’m trying to work my way into this forum, it’s a little challenging at times. I’m the second guy to engage in mindless insults when I’ve been attacked for no reason, I can swear and insult with the best of them, the exception being Cat (;>). Just teasing you girl. I often offer opposing views to the piece at hand, seen through the eyes of a citizen that’s aware of the dangers posed out there, with no predisposition of hating cops. Sure, they mess up from time to time. Some lie, some cheat, some steal….of course…….they’re human for peat’s sake. I happen to think for the most part, they’re good people. The alternative (that some writers tout) of self policing is really spooky to me, can you imagine! But like the collage students of today, one minute of thought, some ranting and raving……and it’s problem solved (in their minds).

          • hrdcore

            there used to be a radio show here were the two announcers would take opposite sides of social issues. The guy who took the conservative view was often threatened and had some even threaten his family. It was so bad they stopped the program and the FBI was called to stop the threats. Strange how tolerant the liberal are at times…..The other announcer didn’t experience any of this (other than people calling the announcer’s ideas stupid or misinformed.

          • doucyet

            It must to be a great feeling to know everything…….. and……..to know that your way is the only way. I wonder what that has to with being a liberal?

          • hrdcore

            the announcer who got the threats against him and his family was the one who took the conservative side, The had good conversations on the issues of the day. Had many good calls for both sides. Yet too many negative calls were made to his work and home and death threats were made. Not only to him but his kids. Like I said the other announcer who was the progressive side got none. love to discus my points of view (unless out right insults are the means of discussions) Often I find I have to list my sources (often government or newspapers ) (even then many times they will not accept the sources or offer counter sources) And when I am on the loosing end It happens) it helps me find a better argument.

          • doucyet

            I’ve all but stopped visiting this site because they force the ads on you. It’s bad enough that they bombard your screen with mindless BS, but they force you to shut down blockers, I’m not turning off my ad blocker………

        • Zackknowitall

          If stoping bad behavior was the goal the government would not take a bribe I meant fine. If stopping bad and dangerous driving behavior was the goal then taking the driving lic away would stop that. Then jail for driving on suspended. I’m talking about dangerous drives not ppl who should have put on a turn signal 10ft earlier or for got their seatbelt.

          • doucyet

            You said bad and dangerous, which one are you suggesting that taking the license away on a first violation (rather than a citation) would be more effective? I think you meant dangerous. What’s dangerous from bad? Then for the guy/gal that’s just a bad driver, what do we do with them? No fines, but ten lashes?

  • rb s

    Can you say tall tree short rope ?

  • Talcum X

    So victims get $500 each x 190 =$95,000. So SPLC gets $595,000? I guess we know who the real winner is here.

    • Zackknowitall

      the lawsuit was more than just about money. It effectly stopped the practice of this debtors prison.

      • Talcum X

        With over $300Mil endowment, the SPLC could have easily given over the money to the victims. SPLC debate is another subject altogether.

  • Little_Caesar

    We can stop this in it’s tracks IF, everyone who gets a ticket goes to court and asks for a jury trial. BAM! No money would be collected up front. The list for jury trials would grow so long that judges would have to tell cops to stop writing tickets. Beat the system WITH the system!

    • permalink

      Better yet, people need a valid Drivers License before driving…

      “Plaintiff Amanda Underwood was fined $250 for driving without a license.”

      • Gary Smith

        What a joke. People have the “right” to travel freely. The government takes that “right” away from the people, then sells it back to them in the form of a “driver’s license”.

        Your belief that government is the solution is the problem.

        • permalink

          The “right to travel freely” ends when driving a motor vehicle on a public funded road.

          Amanda Underwood would NOT have been fined IF she had a Drivers License.

          She probably didn’t have insurance either.

          I guess you are another TFTP social justice warrior who advocates breaking the law…

          • Gary Smith

            “The “right to travel freely” ends when driving a motor vehicle on a public funded road.”

            The right to travel freely ended when government declared drivers must have a permission slip to do so.

            “Amanda Underwood would NOT have been fined IF she had a Drivers License.”

            That’s obvious.

            “She probably didn’t have insurance either.”

            What’s your point? That she probably didn’t have insurance either and so the theft was justified?

            “I guess you are another TFTP social justice warrior who advocates breaking the law…”

            Nice Ad Hominem. But you did get the last part right. If it were in someone’s best interest – and it caused harm to no one – I absolutely do advocate breaking the law, and wouldn’t hesitate to do so myself. I’m guessing you’ll think me a criminal for saying so, and that’s okay.

            The law does not define morality, as much as cops and judges want you to believe otherwise.

          • permalink

            “I absolutely do advocate breaking the law”

            That is typical of most posters here on TFTP.

          • Gary Smith

            You conveniently left out critical context so it fits your statist worldview.

            That is typical of most people who look to a criminal gang to make their decisions for them.

          • ReverendDraco✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ ᵃᶜᶜᵒᵘᶰᵗ

            The right to travel freely does not end when driving a motor vehicle on a publicly funded road.

            The only time a license is required is when driving commerically.

            Berberian v. Lussier (1958) 139 A2d 869, 872, See also: Schecter v. Killingsworth,
            380 P.2d 136, 140; 93 Ariz. 273 (1963). “The right to operate a motor vehicle [an automobile] upon the public streets and highways is not a mere privilege. It is a right of liberty, the enjoyment of which is protected by the guarantees of the federal and state constitutions.”

            Adams v. City of Pocatello, 416 P.2d 46, 48; 91 Idaho 99 (1966). “A
            traveler has an equal right to employ an automobile as a means of
            transportation and to occupy the public highways with other vehicles in
            common use.”

            Simeone v. Lindsay, 65 Atl. 778, 779; Hannigan v. Wright, 63 Atl. 234,
            236. “The RIGHT of the citizen to DRIVE on the public street with
            freedom from police interference, unless he is engaged in suspicious
            conduct associated in some manner with criminality is a FUNDAMENTAL
            CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT which must be protected by the courts.” People v.
            Horton 14 Cal. App. 3rd 667 (1971) “The right to make use of an
            automobile as a vehicle of travel long the highways of the state, is no
            longer an open question. The owners thereof have the same rights in the
            roads and streets as the drivers of horses or those riding a bicycle or
            traveling in some other vehicle.”

            Hillhouse v United States, 152 F. 163, 164 (2nd Cir. 1907). “…a
            citizen has the right to travel upon the public highways and to
            transport his property thereon…” State vs. Johnson, 243 P. 1073;
            Cummins vs. Homes, 155 P. 171; Packard vs. Banton, 44 S.Ct. 256;
            Hadfield vs. Lundin, 98 Wash 516, Willis vs. Buck, 263 P. l 982;

            Barney vs. Board of Railroad Commissioners, 17 P.2d 82 “The use of the
            highways for the purpose of travel and transportation is not a mere
            privilege, but a common and fundamental Right of which the public and
            the individual cannot be rightfully deprived.”

    • hrdcore

      That may not work out. My daughter was getting ready to go to work when she got a call from her kids school that their so called father did not pick them up. (court ordered visitation) so she rushed to pick them up and get them home so she could get to work nearly on time. On way she was stopped for possible seat belt violation (she was wearing seat belt) but wallet came out of purse when she changed and didn’t see it. Was charged with driving without a license. after work she went home got wallet and went to police to show she had license. Police refused to drop charge. So she went to court. Her “judge said it is a felony to drive with out your license and fined her over $325. (fine + court costs) The person after her was caught driving under a suspended license and was fined only $100. Justice is not always fair and court cost may be passed on to you….

      • Zackknowitall

        The driving without a lic charge is not for ppl who forgot their lic at home. I was moved pulled over for flipping off a cop. He wrote me a ticket for not having my lic on me. I went to the court house and filled a motion to dismiss the cases. It was dismissed 2 days later. First off she shouldn’t have the cops to drop anything. She should have filled a motion with the court clerk.

        • hrdcore

          Believe me she tried. the judge was also unsympathetic. They wouldn’t even let her do community service to pay it off. Yet like I said the man who was driving with a suspended license (caught more than once) got off with a fine way less. But I guess that is justice in Bath Maine.

          • Gary Smith

            Maine law says it’s a crime to drive on the road if any of the following apply:

            – The driver does not have a valid driver’s license – the person operating the vehicle has not received a license from any state, is not eligible for a license or has lost their license.
            – The driver is in violation of a conditional or restricted license – after a person’s license gets suspended or revoked, they can sometimes get a limited license that allows them to drive only under certain circumstances.
            – The driver has a Maine driver’s license that has expired 90 days ago or less

            Sounds like the thug in robes lied to your daughter. No big surprise there but I think it’s worth fighting.

    • Zackknowitall

      Yes it would strain the system to the core. My local court only has one judge for traffic court. I bet he can settle 100 cases a day of ppl pleading guilty plus all these who pay the fine before the first appearance. I heard in my county cops write 1,000 tickets a week so 52,000 a year.

      If everyone envoked their rights and demanded a quick and speedy jury trail they could hold max 4 cases a day 5 days a week. If lucky they would could hear 1,000 cases a year. I didn’t figure in holidays that take place during the week or break for thanksgiving or Christmas. If they heard 900 I would be shocked. They would have to dismiss cases or be at risk of violating people right to a quick and speedy trial.

      All the sudden they have a lost of income from 50,000 tickets a year plus the cost of juries for every day of the week court is open.

    • ReverendDraco✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ ᵃᶜᶜᵒᵘᶰᵗ

      Not only that. . . but demand to examine/cross examine the victim if/when the case makes it to court.

      No victim, no crime.

  • rgf

    Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF) has been used for years to punish citizens accused of crimes such as drunk driving, driving with too much cash on hand, or being in possession of marijuana.

    Uhm . . . Is it really a crime to ” . . . drive with too much cash on hand . . .”?