The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has called for a federal civil rights investigation following the death behind bars of David Stojcevski, who was sentenced to 30 days for $772 in unpaid traffic fines. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation revealed that the sentence itself may not have been legal.
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday, the ACLU said it was “unconscionable” that the Macomb County Jail allowed Stojcevski to die — cameras capture him in his final hours, lying on the floor naked and writhing — and that he was jailed “because he was too poor to pay” his fines.
Last week, BuzzFeed News reported that Judge Joseph Boedeker, who sentenced Stojcevski to jail, may have violated the law by not first assessing his ability to pay the traffic fines. Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court rulings, as well as other Michigan court decisions, require judges to determine if a defendant can afford to pay fines before jailing him for failure to do so. But transcripts from the sentencing hearing show Boedeker asked no questions about Stojcevski’s finances. Stojcevski was told that he could either pay the $772 or spend 30 days in jail. “As soon as you pay,” Boedeker told him, “you can be released.”
In its letter to the Department of Justice, the ACLU of Michigan argues that a system that has two tracks, one for the wealthy and one for the poor, is illegal. “‘Pay or stay’ sentences are unconstitutional when the poor are incarcerated while the wealthy go free,” it wrote, citing the 1983 Supreme Court ruling in Bearden v. Georgia.
Stojcevski’s death is already the subject of an inquiry by the FBI. A lawsuit filed by his family alleges that the medical staff’s failure to respond to Stojcevski’s drug addictions — he had a prescription for methadone and told jail officials that he was also using Xanax and Klonopin — cost him his life. After a few days in jail, Stojcevski began hallucinating. By the time he died, 16 days after his incarceration began, he had lost at least 45 pounds. An autopsy by the county medical examiner determined he died of “Acute Withdrawal.”
Macomb County’s attorney, John Schapka, declined to comment on the ACLU’s letter. “I don’t try cases in the press,” he said. The Macomb County sheriff, Anthony Wickersham, has previously said that reports based on the video of Stojcevski’s final hours are misleading and that jail officials did their jobs properly.
Judge Boedeker did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but last week he told BuzzFeed News he had acted legally. Stojcevski had missed two court dates, which Boedeker said meant he had “wilfully” chosen not to pay the ticket and could therefore be sent to jail. “I determined that he was in contempt because he had made no good-faith effort to pay,” Boedeker said. A recent ruling from a Michigan court, however, found that judges must assess a defendant’s ability to pay even if the defendant has missed a court hearing.
Jail time for unpaid fines has gained notoriety over the past year. The Department of Justice’s report following the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, found that many people there have been incarcerated for their debts. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that judges in Texas routinely flout the law by locking people up for their debts.
The ACLU of Michigan has already been fighting so-called “pay or stay” sentences there, recently winning a case in which a woman faced incarceration if she didn’t pay $455 stemming from a “no dog license” ticket. In its letter, the ACLU said that "(h)undreds if not thousands” of people in Michigan are locked up on such sentences each year. And Stojcevski was not the first to die in jail while incarcerated on a “pay or stay” sentence, the letter said, noting that Christopher Drewek committed suicide in the same jail as Stojcevski in 2010.
“Mr. Stojcevski’s death is a horrific reminder that even short incarceration on a 'pay or stay' sentence can have terrible consequences,” the letter says.