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Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Claiming Austin Illegally Jails Poor People

A class-action suit had claimed that judges in Austin were locking people up for not paying court fines without properly assessing whether the defendants could afford to pay. A federal judge said this week that the city can't be held liable.

Posted on March 18, 2016, at 11:38 a.m. ET

Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons / Via Wikimedia Commons

Austin's federal courthouse.

A federal judge this week dismissed a class-action lawsuit against the city of Austin claiming that municipal judges were illegally jailing people for their unpaid fines.

The suit had alleged that Austin judges were routinely jailing people for failing to pay low-level fines without adequately assessing whether they could afford their debts or offering them reasonable community service. The judge dismissed the case without addressing whether the allegations are true, saying that even if they are, the city of Austin isn't liable for their municipal judges' actions. It wasn't city policy to jail people in this manner, the federal judge ruled, so the city can't be held responsible.

"We are disappointed and are considering our options," Rebecca Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, one of the legal advocacy groups that filed the suit, said in a statement. A spokesperson for the city of Austin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Austin is on a long list of cities around the country where court practices for jailing people for court debts have come under the microscope. Biloxi, Mississippi, this week agreed to "sweeping reforms" to how it treats people who owed low-level fines as part of a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union.

In Texas, where a BuzzFeed News investigation last fall found judges across the state routinely flouting laws that are meant to protect poor debtors, the city of El Paso has moved to curb illegal jailings, and the state Judicial Council has proposed allowing longer payment plans for people struggling with what they owe.

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