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Alabama Judge Accused Of Telling Offenders To Give Blood Or Go To Jail

Judge Marvin Wiggins in Montgomery, Ala., in October of 2013.
Dave Martin
Judge Marvin Wiggins in Montgomery, Ala., in October of 2013.

The actions of a circuit judge in Marion, Ala., are raising all kinds of questions about the ethics of essentially sentencing someone to have a medical procedure.

In a recording released by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Judge Marvin Wiggins told a courtroom full of offenders that if they did not have money to pay their fines, they could go right outside the courthouse and donate blood.

"So, if you do not have any money and don't want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money," Wiggins is heard saying on the recording.

The New York Times, which first reported the story, says the room was full of people who owed fines or fees for a variety of offenses such as "hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks."

The paper adds:

"Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and working-class people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed that it was improper.

"'What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways,' said Arthur L. Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, part of New York University. 'You're basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn't benefit them and isn't protecting the public health.'

"Reached by phone, Judge Wiggins said: 'I cannot speak with you.'"

The Birmingham News reports that controversy has followed Judge Wiggins. The paper reports:

"In 2009, the Alabama Court of the Judiciary publicly reprimanded Wiggins and ordered him to work without pay for 90 days for not recusing himself in a voter fraud investigation involving three of his relatives.

"Gov. Robert Bentley in 2014 removed Wiggins from the Alabama State University board of trustees for conflict-of-interest violations."

Of course, this case speaks to the greater issue of municipalities putting people in jail because they are too poor to pay their fines. As we've reported, in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, the city was accused of using court fines and fees to bankroll its operations.

Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit against Alexander City, Ala., for running what they say is a "debtor's prison."

Here's how that group describes what they say is going on in that city:

"Rather than offer community service to the indigent or allow individuals to set up a payment plan, people are held at the city jail until someone pays the fine or until they "sit out" their time at a rate of $20 per day toward their debt – or $40 per day if appointed as a jail trustee to do jobs such as laundry, cleaning and washing police cars.

"By jailing people for their inability to pay, the city violates their 14th Amendment right to due process and equal protection under the law. The warrantless arrests violate Alabama law and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. The arrests also violate individuals' right to counsel, protected by the Sixth Amendment."

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.