A team of lawyers from Ballard Spahr, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Ward and Glass has filed a lawsuit in Oklahoma state court against the town of Valley Brook, Oklahoma and its officials. The suit alleges Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection violations, as well as Eighth Amendment violations and other civil rights abuses, arising from a scheme to arrest, incarcerate, and extract monetary payments from local residents.
The three named plaintiffs—Kimiesha Hill, Jason Garnett, and Kiara McCorkle, who filed on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated plaintiffs—were each jailed or threatened to be jailed by Valley Brook officials when they could not afford to pay fines associated with traffic tickets and other minor offenses. All three were detained for multiple days, without access to counsel, and instructed to contact family and friends who could help them pay the fines to avoid imprisonment.
“In violation of both the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma state constitution, the town of Valley Brook is using minor municipal violations and the threat of jail time as a way to raise revenue,” said Jason A. Leckerman, the attorney leading the Ballard Spahr team, which is engaged on a pro bono basis. “These unfair practices create a two-tiered justice system that illegally strips those who cannot pay of their civil rights.”
Valley Brook collects a higher proportion of its total revenue through fines than any of the other 384 Oklahoma municipalities. In 2017, the average across all of the state’s municipalities for fines and forfeitures as a percentage of total revenues was 5.7%. In comparison, Valley Brook collected approximately $1.1 million in fines and forfeitures, constituting 65% of the town’s total revenue of nearly $1.7 million.
Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction for these practices, compensation for their damages, and a declaratory judgment from the court that these practices are illegal.
“Valley Brook Oklahoma maintains a modern-day debtor's prison that disproportionately penalizes poor Black people to generate revenue for the city’s budget,” said Tianna Mays, Criminal Justice Project Senior Counsel, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “When courts impose fines and fees without considering a person’s ability to pay before jailing them, they are criminalizing poverty and entrapping people in an unnecessary and unconstitutional cycle of incarceration.”