Suit claims Gulfport court has created debtors' prison

23rd July, 2005
The Sun Herald
Robin Fitzgerald

GULFPORT - A federal lawsuit claims the City of Gulfport and its Municipal Court have created a modern-day debtors' prison.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, alleges the city and court officials have abused their authority by putting indigent people in jail for failure to pay misdemeanor fines. It also alleges a special unit of police officers "troll the streets," primarily in predominantly black neighborhoods, looking for people who have past-due court fines.

The civil lawsuit represents only one side of a complaint.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Twelve of the 15 plaintiffs are black.

The complaint names as defendants the City of Gulfport, Municipal Judges Bill Atchison and Richard Smith and Court Administrator Bill Markopoulos.

"People who are rich are being treated differently than people who are poor," said Sarah Geraghty, a Southern Center attorney in Atlanta. "My understanding is that the Municipal Court has a new policy that everyone must pay misdemeanor fines within 30 days. For some people, this is impossible."

The Harrison County jail, long overcrowded, housed 994 inmates on Friday. Of those, 285 were held on misdemeanor charges from Gulfport, jail officials said. Municipalities pay the jail $15 per day per inmate.

The "most disgraceful" complaint, said Geraghty, involves Virginia Thomas, described as illiterate and mentally retarded.

"She is so impaired she cannot even write her own name. Her only source of income is a small monthly SSI check. She has been incarcerated for more than one month for old fines on five occasions. She's never been appointed a lawyer."

Members of the Southern Center and the NAACP have attended hundreds of misdemeanor hearings in Gulfport, said Geraghty.

"We have observed only one instance in which a judge appointed counsel to an indigent person. In that instance, it was after the defendant repeatedly begged for court-appointed counsel. It is really quite disgraceful how they treat these people."

The lawsuit does not seek money for the plaintiffs.

"We just want them to use a more appropriate and constitutionally sound way of dealing with indigent misdemeanors," Geraghty said.

Mayor Brent Warr and City Attorney Harry Hewes were not available for comment Friday.