DOJ Exposes Unlawful Detentions in Mississippi City Over Unpaid Fees

( – The Department of Justice announced last Thursday that the Lexington, Mississippi Police Department violated the U.S. Constitution when it jailed people for unpaid fines before first determining if they could afford to pay them, the Associated Press reported.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division began investigating alleged civil rights violations by Lexington police in November 2023, focusing on allegations of systemic abuse in the mostly black city.

In a February 29 letter to Lexington city attorney Katherine Barrett Riley, Justice Department officials said the Lexington police jailed individuals for unpaid fines before determining if the individuals had the “means to pay them,” violating the Fourteenth Amendment prohibition against wealth-based detention.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said in a press release that it was time to end the two-tiered justice system in which the income of an individual determines if they “walk free” or “go to jail.”

Clarke said the Civil Rights Division’s investigation into the Lexington police uncovered issues of “great urgency” and the Justice Department was prepared to work with city officials to “end these harmful practices.”

US Attorney for the Southern District of Mississippi Todd Gee noted in the press release that a third of the residents of Lexington are below the poverty line. He said the burden of being forced to pay outstanding fees as a condition of release “undermines” rehabilitation and “erodes” trust in the local justice system.

The ongoing Justice Department probe into the Lexington police has also investigated allegations of discriminatory policing, the use of excessive force, and free speech violations.

Former Lexington Police Chief Sam Dobbins was fired in August 2022 after a civil rights organization sued the department alleging that the Lexington police “terrorized” black residents. The organization obtained a recording of Dobbins making racial slurs and joking about how many suspects he killed in the line of duty.

Lexington city officials met with officials from the Justice Department last Thursday and pledged to work with the Civil Rights Division to reform their policies.

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