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Town & Officials Accused of Unconstitutional Debt Collection Prison Scheme

  • Written by Steel Rose

A lawsuit against the Town of Valley Brook and three of its officials was filed in the Oklahoma County District Court last week, alleging they and others are complicit in an unconstitutional debt collection scheme that preys on people who are poor.

The suit was brought forward by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of three people who said they were victims of the policy.

“A cycle of debt and prison,” said senior counsel Tianna Mays.

The complaint argues that people accused of minor offenses are fined at amounts they cannot afford.

If they can’t pay them, the defendants are jailed, and that allegedly violates their rights under the Constitution and Oklahoma Law.

“It is illegal to jail people because they cannot pay a fine or a fee,” Mays said. “It’s under something that is called Rule 8, and under the rule it gives the court a lot of liberty to either waive fines or fees, reduce fines or fees or give people community service; and what we’ve seen in Valley Brook is that they do neither. They just instead assess the fines and fees, and when people can’t pay that same night, they put them in jail.”

The legal group looked at census data from 2017 and found that on average, the 385 municipalities with reported budget information in Oklahoma receive 5.7 percent of revenue from fines and forfeitures. In Valley Brook, fines and forfeitures constituted 65 percent of the town’s total revenue. It ranked number one in the state for revenue collected from fines and forfeitures.

The complaint accuses Municipal Judge Stephen Haynes, Mayor Lewis Nieman and Police Chief Michael Stamp of perpetuating the so-called “debtors’ prison.”

“They are consciously doing this,” Mays said.

Stamp and Haynes declined to comment on the suit. Haynes said they did not yet know about it.

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