CHARLESTON, SC - The citizens of South Carolina were handed a victory on January 23 in a decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case, brought by the ACLU of South Carolina and the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project, Brown v. Lexington County challenges South Carolina’s ongoing practice of jailing people too poor to pay fines or fees, something traditionally known as “debtors’ prisons.” We argue that two state judges and a sheriff have been running debtors’ prisons, which have been deemed unconstitutional.
The decision was made after the defendants argued they have immunity from charges because of their official status, known as “immunity.” The 4th Circuit disagreed, saying that immunity hasn’t yet been determined, and that work needs to be done at the District court before immunity can be claimed.
This is the only appellate ruling in the country permitting a debtors’ prisons suit to proceed against immunity claims. That the 4th Circuit acknowledged the importance of allowing the case to continue is a testament to how poorly the fate is of people in this state if they cannot afford the hundreds or thousands of dollars that might be demanded of them.
Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina said, “Debtors’ prisons have long been determined to be unconstitutional, but some of the courts in South Carolina have been participating in that practice regardless. I’m heartened to know that the 4th Circuit also agrees that more work needs to be done in this state to eradicate the unconstitutional practice.”
The ACLU of SC and the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project look forward to concluding this litigation and the end of debtors’ prisons in South Carolina and around the country soon. This win from the 4th Circuit allows the continuance of this challenge and the protection of civil liberties for South Carolinians as well as all Americans.
This press release can be found at: https://www.aclusc.org/en/press-releases/debtors-prison-case-continue