A Mississippi city and its police department have been notified by the Department of Justice that jailing people for unpaid fines without determining if they can afford to pay them violates the Constitution.

A letter from the DOJ sent Thursday to the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department revealed that their current practices violate the 14th Amendment, which prohibits wealth-based detention.

“In recent guidance to state courts across the country, the Department of Justice noted the U.S. Supreme Court’s s(sic) repeated holdings ‘that the government may not incarcerate individuals solely because of their inability to pay a fine,'” the letter stated.

According to the DOJ, the city and LPD are violating the above guidance in two ways: by requiring those arrested to pay down outstanding fines before they can be released from jail and by issuing and arresting people on warrants for outstanding fines.

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On April 20, 2023, the DOJ issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to courts explaining that people cannot be imprisoned for outstanding fines until it has been determined they have the resources to pay the bill. If the person does not have the means to pay, imprisonment is unlawful.

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division said in a DOJ news release.

Clarke described the practice as “unlawful” and said unjustly enforcing fines and fees “traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment.”

U.S. Attorney Todd Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi echoed similar sentiments in a statement, noting that “one third of Lexington’s residents live below the poverty line.”

“The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system,” Gee said. “Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

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The letter comes as part of an ongoing DOJ investigation into the city and police department in efforts to determine whether there are “systemic violations of the Constitution and federal law related to use of force; stops, searches and arrests; discriminatory policing and the right to free speech.”

The investigation was opened on Nov. 8, 2023.

“Although the investigation continues, the Justice Department determined that it was critically important to identify these violations now rather than waiting until the conclusion of the inquiry,” the letter stated.

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DOJ officials met with city and police leaders on Thursday to discuss the concerns surrounding imprisonment for unpaid fines and fines, and were told that Lexington authorities will work to ensure the collection of fines and fees is done lawfully.