SPLC: AL judge demands blood or jail time

SPLC: AL judge demands blood or jail time

PERRY CO., AL (WSFA) - An Alabama judge is facing a judicial ethics complaint, filed by Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center, after the civil rights organization alleged he forced defendants who were unable to pay court fees to either give blood or go to jail.

According to the complaint filed with the Alabama Judicial inquiry Commission, defendants in more than 500 criminal cases were summoned to appear before Perry County Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins on Sept. 17. While in his courtroom, Judge Wiggins is said to have threatened defendants, some of whom had cases as minor as hunting violations.

The judged noted that the sheriff "had enough handcuffs" for those unable to pay fines and unwilling to donate blood at a drive right outside the courthouse, according to the complaint.

"If you do not have any money and you don't want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back," Wiggins is reported to have said, "or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money," according to the complaint. Wiggins also said to consider the option of giving blood "a discount rather than putting you in jail."

Many of the defendants donated blood out of fear of facing jail time, the SPLC said, and according to the complaint, still owed thousands of dollars to the court. The SPLC said many of those who gave blood did not even get credit toward what they owe, meaning they will likely end up back in court in the future.

The complaint outlines several ethics violations against Judge Wiggins including failure to demonstrate professional competence and failure to uphold the integrity of the law. It also states that a person cannot be legally sentenced to jail over debt they cannot pay, but the judge failed to assess the defendants' ability to pay before the hearing.

LifeSouth Community Blood Center, which ran a blood drive at the courthouse that day, issued the following response to the complaint:

Fifty-four donors were registered at the Perry County Courthouse blood drive on September 17th.  After receiving a complaint from one of the donors after the blood drive, we initiated an investigation.  The blood collected remains in quarantine and the investigation is ongoing.   We are in the process of following up with each donor as the safety of the blood supply is our highest priority.

The notice was sent to each defendant ordering them to appear in court for the "Restitution Recovery Initiative for Victims in Alabama" docket. It did not inform them that their ability to pay was a critical issue of the hearing, the SPLC contends. In at least once situation, the SPLC says a defendant was told by the circuit clerk's office that they did not need an attorney at the hearing.

"The case law is clear, and Alabama's statutes and rules are clear," Sara Zampierin, SPLC Staff Attorney said. "Judges may not jail someone simply because they are poor and not able to pay. We're asking the Judicial Inquiry Commission to sanction Judge Wiggins for his conduct. And we're also calling on all courts in Alabama to re-examine their procedures to ensure that the poor are not being wrongfully threatened with jail."

The SPLC said the threat of jailing the poor for nonpayment is not a problem unique to Perry County courts, though the alternative of a blood payment may be.

Judge Wiggins has not publicly reacted to the complaint filed against him.

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