1. Department Of Justice Investigation Into Ferguson
The initial investigation into the police was expanded to include an analysis of its municipal courts. It’s easy to forget that the DOJ’s mandate was to look at the practices and policies of the police department following the murder of Mike Brown. When they came to St. Louis, they heard from ArchCity Defenders as well as every member of the community impacted by the fees, fines, and use of police and court to collect them in an unlawful manner. To their credit, they included this in their consent decree.
2. Dear Colleague Letter To Judges Across The U.S.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the department’s Civil Rights Division, and Lisa Foster, director of the Office for Access to Justice, wrote to the chief judges and court administrators in all 50 states stating that illegal enforcement of fines and fees had been receiving increased attention in recent years, and the Justice Department had a strong interest in making sure the rights of citizens were protected. This letter put every judge on notice that such practices were illegal and that they may face consequences if they continued them.
3. Statement Of Interest On Cash Bail
Our friend Alec Karakatsanis filed a federal class action in the city of Clanton, Alabama for the illegal use of a bail schedule that further exacerbated a two-tiered system of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. The DOJ filed a statement of interest supporting the legal theories Alec developed in the case. Attorney General Eric Holder forcefully stated that “Bail practices that are indifferent to an individual’s ability to pay are incompatible with our Constitution and contrary to our values. By taking action in this case, the Justice Department is sending a clear message: that we will not accept criminal justice procedures that have discriminatory effects. We will not hesitate to fight institutionalized injustice wherever it is found. And we will never waver in our effort to ensure that all Americans – regardless of background or circumstance – receive the equal rights and protections to which they are entitled under the law.”
4. Statement Of Interest On The Criminalization Of Homelessness
The great attorneys at Idaho Legal Aid Services and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an ordinance that prohibited camping as applied to people who have no where else to go. After lawyers on the ground filed suit, the DOJ added its statement of interest saying : “[i]t should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment. . . Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.”
5. Statement Of Interest On Automatic Suspension Of Driver’s License As Punishment For Poverty
Again, amazing lawyers on the ground at the Legal Aid Justice Center filed suit challenging Virginia’s use of automatic driver’s license suspension for the failure to pay fines or fees. The DOJ weighed in once more on another example of due process free criminalization of poverty. Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division said: “People depend on driver’s licenses to get to work, access health care and provide for their families – and so when their license is suspended for reasons that do not relate to public safety, it unnecessarily disrupts lives and harms communities. This brief advances the department’s robust efforts to prevent unlawful practices that punish poverty at every stage of the justice system and that trap vulnerable residents in cycles of debt from court fines and fees.”
In every example, people on the ground started the process, called attention to injustice, and filed the underlying litigation. That won’t change under a Trump administration, but it is inconceivable that a Rudy Giuliani-led Department of Justice would support any of these initiatives.
We hope that people like Vanita Gupta, Karol Mason, and Lisa Foster stay at DOJ and continue to support the great work of local organizers and lawyers across the country. But in addition to hoping for the best, we need to plan for the worst. ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit civil rights law firm committed to holistic legal advocacy, will continue to combat the criminalization of poverty and perpetuation of state violence through indigent legal defense, civil rights litigation, and media advocacy.