Lawsuit alleges Missouri authorities jailed woman for being ‘too poor to pay’

Nicole Boldens suit, which alleges the targeting of black motorists, follows like-minded class actions against over a dozen places nearby

She got into a car accident that was not her fault, but Nicole Bolden ended up being arrested in front of her toddlers and jailed in foul conditions for two weeks because she could not afford to pay $1,758 in outstanding traffic fines, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed Monday.

Now she is suing the authorities in Missouri, accusing them of jailing her illegally, solely because she was too poor to pay, in a system she alleges amounts to running an unconstitutional, modern-day version of a debtors prison.

Nicole
Nicole Bolden. Photograph: Nicole Bolden/Courtesy of Nicole Bolden

Bolden, 34, was only able to get out of the St Charles County jail, near St Louis, when her mother borrowed against her life insurance policy to pay her bond.

Bolden choked up as she told the Guardian that she was still paying the money back in small increments when her mother died a year later, in 2015.

I never got to finish paying her back before she left this Earth, she said.

Bolden is suing the city of Foristell, and St Charles County.

The federal lawsuit also accuses Foristell of extorting money out of Bolden and other African American residents, in particular, with fines and fees that boost the citys coffers in a system that maximizes revenues, not justice.

If tiny Foristell, population 500, were the size of the St Louis metropolitan region, the equivalent court fees gathered per capita over the last five years would amount to more than $16bn, the lawsuit states.

The city of Foristell did not immediately respond to a request for comment. St Charles County had no comment prior to reviewing the lawsuit.

In March 2014, Bolden was involved in a car accident in which she was not at fault. But a responding police officer ran a check and discovered that Bolden had arrest warrants relating to unpaid traffic tickets in three jurisdictions. She was arrested.

Her lawyer, Michael-John Voss of ArchCity Defenders, said local courts across the region regularly failed to assess a persons ability to pay, as required under the constitution, and instead arrested and jailed those struggling financially, rather than working out a payment plan or a stint of community service to resolve minor violations.

Jailing people over their poverty amounts to operating illegal debtors prisons, Voss said.

The individual lawsuit from Nicole Bolden follows a series of like-minded class actions filed by ArchCity Defenders against more than a dozen neighboring places. These include one against the city of Jennings, which has agreed to settle, and one against Ferguson, which is also being sued by the Department of Justice after it balked at reforms to its police and courts.

How do you expect us to climb out of a hole when you are digging it deeper for us? Bolden asked.

Police in the area target black motorists disproportionately, her lawsuit alleges.

Bolden was handcuffed in front of her two-year-old daughter and one-year-old son before being taken away after the March 2014 accident.

Over the next four days, she was passed between the different jurisdictions and kept in custody, including spending 26 hours in St Louis County jail, while the authorities waited for her to pay a bond. During this time she missed an interview for a job with the Red Lobster restaurant chain.

She had to use the $120 on her child support card to pay one bond and borrow $150 from a cousin to pay another.

In four days I got no sleep and wasnt offered a bath or shower. At that point, you smell, Bolden said.

Officers at the jail gave her hope, she said, that once she was transferred to Foristell, she could go home, pending a court appearance.

But when the Foristell authorities took her to St Charles County Jail at 4am, she was told that because she owed the city $1,758 and there was no court date until May, she would be held until then or until she paid.

I cracked mentally at that point. I shut down, Bolden said. She was put on suicide watch in an isolation cell.

The following day she was put in another cell with a heroin addict who was convulsing and vomiting on the floor and herself.

Jailers refused to move Bolden. Two hours later they brought some supplies so Bolden could clean up the mess.

The lawsuit continues: In St Charles County Jail the drains in the showers were filled with gnats.

When Ms Bolden was given the opportunity to shower, the countless gnats would fly around and upon her for the duration of the shower.

Bolden was behind bars for two weeks with no time outdoors. The only chance for exercise beyond her tiny cell was walking in a small circle in the eating area.

She managed to see a judge that April, and although Voss negotiated her bond down to $700, Bolden couldnt afford it.

Eventually, Boldens mother borrowed the money from her life insurance policy and her daughter was released.

Her mother and sister had looked after her four children, as Bolden is a single mother, and she said the son who had watched her being arrested would not come to her when she got home.

He looked at me like he was not sure if he knew me. I wasnt gone that long but to him it was long. It was very painful. Now hes three and he wont leave my side, she said.

All her children become acutely anxious when she leaves the house, she said.

Now Bolden has a housekeeping job at a St Louis hospital and has cleared up her legal troubles.

She has two associates degrees and aspires to be a police dispatcher or a corrections officer, for the improved opportunities, she said.

Her civil rights suit claims violations of probable cause, equal protection and due process clauses under the fourth and 14th amendments to the constitution.

The amount of damages and restitution demanded has not been specified yet but is expected to be in excess of $200,000, plus costs.

In March 2016, the Department of Justice wrote to chief judges in all 50 states warning them against illegally fining and jailing people where the issue was not refusal to pay but the inability to pay.

And in Ferguson, the department sharply criticized the police and court system there when it investigated in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer in August 2014. The shooting sparked huge unrest over race relations and police killings elsewhere, in protests sweeping the country.

Federal officials said Fergusons criminal justice system operated in a toxic environment, and revealed entrenched bias in the courts, where black citizens were being gratuitously penalized and jailed while some white court officials helped their friends and cohorts get their fines dismissed.

The department then sued Ferguson in February 2016, and the case is ongoing.

Voss said he wished the department had investigated the whole region because the issues raised were all too common. He lamented that reforms prompted by the various legal actions have been limited.

Its slow. Theres reluctance, theres pushback. Thats why we are filing lawsuits, he said.

And he warned that even the limited actions taken by the department in an Obama administration would not have happened with Donald Trump as president.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/06/missouri-woman-jailed-for-being-too-poor-lawsuit