Four ex-inmates sue Harpersville, claiming civil rights violations

Published 1:30 pm Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Four former Harpersville inmates filed a lawsuit against the city March 3, claiming the city routinely violates indigent inmates’ civil rights by improperly holding them in the Shelby County Jail.

Former Harpersville inmates Richard Garrett, Terrance Datcher, Debra Ford and Dana Burdette filed the lawsuit against the city in the Shelby County Circuit Court.

The suit names Harpersville Mayor Theoangelo Perkins, former Police Chief Paul Brasher, Municipal Court Judge Larry Ward, Court Clerk Penny Hall and the Judicial Corrections Services company, which helps collect the city’s fines and court costs, as defendants.

Because Harpersville does not have its own jail, the city transports its inmates to the Shelby County Jail.

In the lawsuit, the former inmates claim the city regularly fails to “provide adequate or any counsel to indigent defendants,” does not advise inmates of their constitutional rights, does not hold a hearing before imposing fines and sets “unreasonable bond amounts” for indigent people arrested by the city.

Court documents also claim the city “automatically incarcerates indigent defendants for failure to pay fines and costs,” imposes court costs and fines above the maximum allowed by law and violates several other constitutionally protected civil rights.

Bill Justice, a Columbiana attorney whose firm provides legal services for Harpersville, said the city has been notified of the lawsuit, and has taken the first steps toward combating it in court.

“Really the only step we have taken so far is to forward the information to the city’s insurance carrier,” Justice said. “The insurance carrier will designate a law firm to represent the city.

“Normally, they will select a firm separate from the one that usually represents the city, but we will work together with them,” Justice added. “We just got (the lawsuit details) a few days ago, and we will have to sit down and study the merits of it before we formulate any kind of response.”

Perkins said he was aware of the lawsuit, but declined to comment.

“I am aware of it, and the matter is under review,” Perkins said. “Due to the sensitivity of it, and the pending litigation, I don’t think it would be prudent for me to comment any further right now.

“I will say this, though. Things are not always what they appear,” Perkins added.

Stephen Wallace, a Birmingham lawyer who helped file the lawsuit against Harpersville, said the city’s system favors wealthy offenders.

“If you incarcerate only those who can’t pay, it favors those who can pay,” Wallace said. “You can’t incarcerate people for not paying without having a finding to determine that they disobeyed the law or intentionally failed to pay.”

The four plaintiffs were all incarcerated by the city after they failed to pay fines and court costs imposed by Harpersville, according to court documents. Garrett filed for a writ of habeas corpus while he was incarcerated, but he was released from jail before the hearing.

Datcher was released from jail after the Circuit Court found he was being improperly jailed. Ford was released from custody after an “angel donor” paid half of her outstanding fine and Burdette was released the day after her attorneys filed a petition for habeas corpus on her behalf.

“It’s not that these defendants refused to pay or snubbed their nose at the city. They just lacked the means to pay the fines,” Wallace said. “Debtors prison and debtors courts have long since been abolished in this country.”

Through the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking monetary compensation from the city, and are seeking to “change the way Harpersville does things,” Wallace said.

“Through the habeas hearings, the most you can get is release from prison. You can’t change the rules in Harpersville through those.

“Simply put, we are just asking Harpersville to follow the law,” Wallace added. “We are not asking them to do anything any other city is not required to do.”

As of March 10, calls to Ward and Brasher had not been returned. Hall declined to comment on the matter.