(Valley Brook, Okla.) — The City of Valley Brook’s practice of jailing citizens because they cannot afford to pay traffic tickets or fines for other minor offenses is a violation of their constitutional rights, a lawsuit filed last week by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Ballard Spahr LLP argues. The lawsuit alleges that the Valley Brook police department, mayor, police chief, Valley Brook Municipal Court, and its presiding judge violated people’s rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as their rights under Oklahoma law.
“Valley Brook Oklahoma maintains a modern-day debtor's prison that disproportionately penalizes poor Black people to generate revenue for the city’s budget,” said Tianna Mays, Criminal Justice Project senior counsel, at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “When courts impose fines and fees without considering a person’s ability to pay before jailing them, they are criminalizing poverty entrapping people in an unnecessary and unconstitutional cycle of incarceration.”
The lawsuit, filed in the District Court of Oklahoma County, alleges the Valley Brook Municipal Court did not afford plaintiffs a lawyer, inquire into their ability to pay, or consider reasonable payment alternatives, as required by federal and state law. Instead, municipal officials and employees threatened plaintiffs, detained them and instructed them to contact loved ones for money to avoid imprisonment. When it became apparent that Plaintiffs could not access these funds, Valley Brook sent them to the Oklahoma County jail.
Eighty percent of criminal defendants in Oklahoma are indigent and many cannot afford the excessive fines and fees associated with traffic and other minor offenses. One Oklahoma court judge has speculated that only five to 11% of criminal court debt is actually collected. Yet Valley Brook, through its police department and municipal court, and with the active assistance of its mayor, has managed to collect an extraordinary amount of fine and fee revenue from criminal court debt. In fact, Valley Brook ranks number one in fines as a percentage of total revenue when compared with 384 other Oklahoma municipalities.
Read the full lawsuit here.
About the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of voting rights, criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and hate crimes. For more information, please visit https://lawyerscommittee.org.