Alabama judge accused of telling debtors to give blood or face jail time

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 20, 2015 1:44 PM

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) - An Alabama judge told defendants who could not pay court fines that they could donate blood or go to jail, a civil rights legal group has charged in an ethics complaint filed against the official.

Judge Marvin Wiggins presented that choice to dozens of people who showed up in his Perry County courtroom on Sept. 17 for a hearing on court fees, fines and restitution they owed in criminal cases, the Southern Poverty Law Center said a complaint filed on Monday with the Judicial Inquiry Commission of Alabama.

"If you do not have any money and you don't want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back," Wiggins told defendants, according to the complaint. "Or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money."

The circuit judge described the offer as a discount, the complaint said. But the law center said defendants were given only a reprieve from being arrested that day and did not receive any financial discount on the money they owed.

Law center staff attorney Sara Zampierin said under Alabama law, a judge cannot jail people simply because they cannot pay for a court-appointed attorney, one of the fees she said Wiggins was assessing people before him on Sept. 17.

“People who couldn’t pay their court debt with cash literally paid with their blood,” she said on Tuesday. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a total disregard not only for judicial ethics, but of the Constitution.”

If the commission finds that Wiggins violated judicial ethics, he could face punishments including a public reprimand or removal from the bench, Zampierin said.

Wiggins did not return a message left with his court clerk.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Alexander)