A low-income Metro Detroit woman who faced jail time over dog license fees got help from a higher court this week.
The Macomb County Circuit Court stepped in to stop an Eastpointe judge from sentencing Donna Anderson.
Anderson told 38th District Court Judge Carl Gerds she couldn’t afford the $455 in licensing costs and court fees.
The Michigan ACLU took up Anderson’s case, calling it an example of unconstitutional “pay or stay” sentencing practices that continue in some courts.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that judges can’t jail people over debts without holding an “ability-to-pay” hearing first. And an expert panel convened by Michigan’s State Court Administrative Office issued a report in April, reaffirming that people who are unable to pay court fines or costs can’t be jailed.
“Unfortunately, some judges are still unconstitutionally jailing people simply because they’re poor,” says ACLU attorney Miriam Aukerman.
The ACLU filed a complaint with the Macomb Circuit Court earlier this month on behalf of Anderson and two other people facing “pay or stay” charges in Gerds’ court.
“We’re asking the circuit court to issue an order saying, ‘You can’t do that anymore,’” Aukerman says. “You can’t do that to Ms. Anderson, and you can’t do that to other defendants in the criminal court who are too poor to pay everything at once.”
Since Anderson was due to be sentenced this week, the circuit court stepped in to issue a kind of time out until it can decide the larger issue, Aukerman says.
Gerds could not immediately be reached for comment at 38th District Court Wednesday.