The Wheat Ridge Municipal Court violated a Colorado law banning debtor’s prison practices by sentencing a homeless man to jail because he could not pay a fine, according to a filing made on his behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.
Wilburn Taylor was cited for panhandling when a Wheat Ridge police officer found him with a blank cardboard and a pen, intending to make a sign requesting charity from passing motorists. Taylor appeared before Municipal Court Judge Christopher Randall, pleaded guilty and was assessed a $100 fine. He explained to the court that he was destitute, jobless, and could not pay. Despite that, Judge Randall told Taylor that he would have to pay the fine by a specific date or a warrant would issue for his arrest.
Over the following months, Taylor, who remained homeless and destitute, was arrested and brought to court two more times, with the debt increasing each time. Finally, after the debt had nearly tripled to $275, Judge Randall cited Taylor for “contempt of court” for failing to pay and sentenced him to three days in jail.
The Supreme Court has long held that it is unconstitutional to jail an individual for failing to pay a debt that he is too poor to pay. Nevertheless, a 2013 ACLU of Colorado investigation revealed that municipal courts around the state were regularly doing just that. During the 2014 legislative session, in response to the ACLU investigation, the Colorado legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 14-1061, a new state law that mandates due process protections to prevent courts from jailing individuals who cannot pay court fines and fees.
ACLU Cooperating Attorney Ty Gee filed a post-conviction motion in Wheat Ridge Municipal Court, arguing that the court violated several provisions of the Colorado statute as well as the Constitution, and, therefore, Taylor’s conviction for contempt of court should be vacated.
The Wheat Ridge Municipal Court denied the ACLU's post-conviction motion on November 5, 2015. The ACLU appealed, and on December 12, 2016, the Jefferson County District Court affirmed the municipal court's order. ACLU lawyers then asked the Colorado Supreme Court for review, without success.
ACLU Press Release:
- Wheat Ridge jailed homeless man in violation of 2014 law banning debtors' prisons, ACLU news Release, August 26, 2015