The hearing in a suburban Detroit courtroom lasted all of three minutes. David Stojcevski had picked up two traffic tickets and skipped his court dates. Now he owed $772.
“So you’ll have to pay that,” Judge Joseph Boedeker told him. If Stojcevski handed over the money, he would walk free. If he didn’t, he would spend 30 days in jail. With that, the hearing was over. The judge asked no questions about Stojcevski’s ability to pay his tickets, despite unanimous Supreme Court rulings that judges must always assess defendants’ ability to pay so people don’t get locked up simply because they can’t afford a fine.
Behind bars, Stojcevski, who was an addict, went into withdrawal. When he started hallucinating, he was put in the jail’s mental health unit, where he was required to give up his clothing. During his 16 days locked up, he lost at least 45 pounds. On the last day he spent almost 10 hours lying on his back, twitching. Then he died.
Coverage of Stojcevski’s case has focused on the medical care he received behind bars, with the FBI investigating and the family filing a lawsuit alleging that officials at the Macomb County Jail did not do enough to prevent his death. (County officials deny wrongdoing.) But now, documents and court transcripts obtained by BuzzFeed News suggest that Stojcevski’s judge violated the law by sending him to jail without determining whether he had enough money to pay his fines.
“Stojcevski should never have been in jail in the first place,” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director at the ACLU of Michigan. “He was too poor to pay.”
Jail time for people who cannot afford their fines has been gaining scrutiny across the country, with critics lambasting it as a modern day debtors’ prison. A recent BuzzFeed News investigation found that many Texas municipal judges routinely jail people without inquiring about their finances, a practice that violates state law and can devastate poor defendants, who often lose crucial paychecks or even their jobs.
The Supreme Court has issued two unanimous rulings that bar jailing people simply because they cannot pay their fines. In Michigan, courts have come to the same conclusion. “It is well established that a sentence that exposes an offender to incarceration unless he pays restitution or some other fine violates the Equal Protection Clauses of the federal and state constitutions because it results in unequal punishments for offenders,” the Michigan Court of Appeals said in a 1999 ruling.
Reached by phone Thursday, Judge Boedeker told BuzzFeed News that his judgment was lawful. By missing two court dates, he explained, Stojcevski had willfully decided not to pay, which meant he could be sent to jail. Boedeker added in an email that Stojcevski “didn’t really have an excuse.”
But Boedeker’s order was explicit: If Stojcevski paid, he could walk free. In a similar case, defendant Ryan Rockett was jailed for unpaid traffic tickets — and he had also missed a court date. On appeal, a Michigan court ruled that Rockett had been locked up illegally because the original judge never assessed his ability to pay. In vacating his sentence, Judge Mary Chrzanowski ruled that there cannot be one outcome for a person with money and another for a person who is poor: “This practice is unconstitutional,” she wrote.
When asked about his client’s finances on Thursday, the lawyer for Stojcevski’s family, Harold Perakis, said Stojcevski worked odd jobs. His death certificate listed his occupation as “Student.” The Stojcevski family’s lawsuit focuses on his treatment in jail, not on whether the judge had locked him up lawfully. But his case is stark evidence of the harm that can come from even a brief stint behind bars.
On June 10, 2014, a policer officer responded to a call about a “father and son arguing out on the front lawn” and found that Stojcevski had a warrant for two unpaid traffic tickets. He was arrested and brought before Judge Boedeker the next day, where he received his sentence.
According to the lawsuit the family filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Stojcevski had been prescribed methadone, and had told jail officials he had been using Xanax and klonopin. A staff member at the jail determined that he “showed obvious physical signs of drug abuse,” and put him in the Medical Detox Unit.
The day he was jailed, Stojcevski started complaining of joint aches and stomach cramps. The lawsuit alleges that staff members failed to give him his prescribed medications. Four days later, staff noted that his detox was “complete.” Yet in the ensuing days, the lawsuit alleges, Stojcevski’s condition worsened.
On June 19, with Stojcevski already in jail for more than a week, Judge Boedeker amended his court order to allow Stojcevski to do community service instead of stay in jail. It’s not clear what prompted that change.
But by then, according to the family’s lawsuit, Stojcevski was already hallucinating from drug withdrawal. The lawsuit cites a jailhouse record that quotes Stojcevski complaining that “all his organs, but 10 percent of his heart was removed and his arms shredded a couple days ago.” He was placed in the jail’s mental health unit, where he was made to strip naked and given only a smock to wear.
A caseworker went to Stojcevski’s cell on June 20 to speak with him about the community service program, but the caseworker emailed the court to say that “he would not move from his cell or speak.”
“The defendant will remain” in the county jail, the caseworker wrote, until July 5, “unless the prorated fine is paid sooner.”
Stojcevski’s condition deteriorated. Hours of video from his time in the cell show him convulsing, sweating, and rolling around on the ground. On the day of his death, June 27, he laid on his back for hours, twitching. Guards eventually arrived and started performing CPR. He was eventually taken to the hospital, but by then it was too late.
Stojcevski’s autopsy lists his cause of death as “Acute Withdrawal from Chronic Benzodiazepine, Methadone and Opiate Medications.”