Alabama City Unconstitutionally Locks Up People For Unpaid Garbage Bills, Lawsuit Claims ‘We Don’t Have Debtors’ Prison’

According to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, the city of Valley’s threat of jail and subsequent imprisonment of residents who fail to pay their garbage bills violates several constitutional rights.

The city came under fire in November when police arrested and jailed Martha Menefield, an 82-year-old woman, for failing to pay her $77 garbage bill – an incident that sparked national outrage.

According to the lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Opelika, Menefield was not the first Valley resident to be jailed for the crime.

Santini Little, a former Valley resident who claimed she was arrested for failing to pay her less than $150 garbage bill in 2011 and then jailed on $2,500 bail for the crime in 2013 , accuses the city and Amwaste of illegally threatening delinquent residents with jail terms, in some cases by putting them behind bars.

She is attempting to classify the lawsuit to include anyone as a plaintiff who was “prosecuted and either detained or threatened with jail for failing to pay a garbage collection fee to the City of Valley.”

“In the state of Alabama and the United States, people don’t go to prison for civil debt,” Allan Armstrong, one of Little’s attorneys, said in a statement to AL.com.

A message left with the Valley Mayor Thursday night did not immediately receive a response.

Little pleaded guilty to the charges in August 2013 and was ordered to pay $119.50 in restitution and $25 bail, according to the lawsuit.

As of July 2021, Little claimed she received four show cause orders — or demands to appear in court before a judge — for failing to pay garbage fees, including an appearance scheduled for Jan. 23.

Valley violated Eighth Amendment high bail and her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by being “imprisoned for failure to pay a garbage disposal fee and continuing to face jail threats for failure to pay the fee,” the lawsuit alleged.

“MS. Little’s debt was less than $150.00. Her bail to get out of prison was $2500.00. This is disproportionate. Also, she has now been fined several hundred dollars in additional costs. This is disproportionate “, it said in the file.

Detaining people who don’t pay garbage bills violates both federal and state laws, the lawsuit says.

“In this country and state we don’t have a debtor’s prison. The law is clear that the prison sentence for debt, Section 20 of the Alabama Constitution, simply states, ‘No one shall be imprisoned for debt,'” the filing continues.

Valley “knew or should have known that it could not detain or threaten detention with people for failure to pay garbage collection fees,” the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, Amwaste, which does garbage collection for the city, “knew that the city used prosecution and jail time, or the threat of it, to levy fees that ultimately benefited Amwaste,” the lawsuit said.

“Amwaste was a direct beneficiary of jail threats because it was paid out of proceeds derived from a system ultimately enforced by imposing jail sentences for non-payment of garbage fees,” the lawsuit alleged. “Amwaste knew about this process. Without the services of Amwaste, the fees would never have been collected.”

The lawsuit also accused the city and Amwaste of engaging in “a pattern of extortion activity” by using “the threat and intimidation of jail terms to extort money from” Little and others.

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