Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Missouri Supreme Court rules courts cannot threaten more jail time for failure to pay jail debt

Missouri Supreme Court rules courts cannot threaten more jail time for failure to pay jail debt

Subscribe for $1 a month

JEFFERSON CITY • The Missouri Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision issued Tuesday, ruled that courts cannot threaten defendants with additional jail time if a defendant fails to pay bills charged for any prior jail stays.

The ruling follows February arguments before the court in which two men challenged the process by which circuit courts in two Missouri counties had jailed them and then charged them money for their stays.

Matthew G. Mueller, the public defender for the two men, argued that state statute did not authorize counties to assess such “board bills” as court costs, which carry the threat of more jail time for failure to pay.

He said counties must collect payment through a civil process that does not carry the threat of jail time. The court agreed.

“While persons are legally responsible for the costs of their board bills under section 221.070, if such responsibilities fall delinquent, the debts cannot be taxed as court costs and the failure to pay that debt cannot result in another incarceration,” the court said in a nine-page decision written by Judge Mary R. Russell.

“We’re pleased with the outcome and we think the court reached the right result,” Mueller told the Post-Dispatch.

Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger has written extensively on the issue, raising the profile of people who have been jailed multiple times over unpaid jail debts.

Mueller said it was too soon to tell how lower courts would react, but he said the ruling would probably reverberate through rural courtrooms across the state, with courts reassessing how officials can collect jail debts.

Under the method nixed by the high court on Tuesday, counties required poor defendants to attend periodic hearings to make small payments toward jail debts.

Failure to show up often meant more jail time and, consequently, higher jail bills.

Some rural counties are likely to take a financial loss once they start following the high court’s ruling, Mueller said.

“It’ll be a big hit to them,” he said. “Assume for example that you have 100 defendants in a particular county who are paying $10 per month toward a $6,000 board bill. Courts can no longer count on that $10 payment from all of those 100 people.”

In one case the Supreme Court considered, George Richey, of Appleton City, Mo., in St. Clair County, was jailed over a $3,150 board bill stemming from his 90-day stay in the county jail. He originally had been jailed after a misdemeanor conviction of violating a protective order.

Richey received an additional $2,275 bill after serving more time in jail.

In the second case, John Wright, of Higginsville, Mo., was charged $1,360 for his 90-day stay in the Lafayette County Jail. He had pleaded guilty to stealing and resisting arrest, according to court documents.

Wright was ordered to attend monthly “show-cause” status hearings and has not served time for failure to pay.

The Supreme Court said lower courts were wrong to require defendants to return to court every month for hearings.

“The courts should not have required them (Wright and Richey) to repeatedly appear to account for debts the courts could not legally designate as court costs, and, in Richey’s case, the circuit court should not have sent him back to jail for failing to make those payments,” the court said.

The court said that both men were responsible for their original jail bills, but the court waived the additional $2,275 charged to Richey after his second stay in jail.

A proposal pending in the Missouri Legislature would put Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling into state statute.

The measure would forbid the threat of jail time in “board bill” cases, and would do away with monthly hearings. The House has advanced the proposal to the Senate.

In January, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, filed an amicus brief in support of Richey’s argument. He praised the ruling on Tuesday.

“Missourians shouldn’t be forced into a cycle of incarceration and used as an ATM simply for being unable to pay jail debts,” Schmitt said in a statement. “I’m pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling — board bills should not be classified as court costs, and modern day ‘debtors’ prisons’ have no place in Missouri.”

Prosecutors in St. Clair and Lafayette counties could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Linda Niendick, Lafayette County clerk, said it was too early to tell how the county would adjust its practices and whether it would take a financial hit because of the decision.

The legislation is House Bill 192.

Jailed for being poor is Missouri epidemic: A series of columns from Tony Messenger

Tony Messenger has written about Missouri cases where people were charged for their time in jail or on probation, then owe more money than their fines or court costs. 

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Blues News

Breaking News

Cardinals News

Daily 6

National Breaking News