Judge Tells Poor Defendants To Literally Pay Fines With Their Blood Or Go To Jail — Is The Ruling Legal?

Occasionally, judges will come up with creative ways to make their rulings. Some judges will dole out bizarre punishments to fit crimes, such as ordering a woman to be pepper sprayed in court. Others like Alabama Judge Marvin Wiggins find unique ways to go easy on defendants.

According to CBS News, Judge Wiggins ordered a large group of impoverished defendants who couldn’t afford to pay fines to give blood if they want to avoid jail time. A recording of Wiggins giving the order was obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside. If you do not have any money and you do not want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today,” the judge said. “Consider that as a discount rather than putting you in jail.”

Judge Marvin Wiggins, photo courtesy of Alabama Circuit Court
Judge Marvin Wiggins, photo courtesy of Alabama State University Board of Trustees

However, the Law Center believes this “give blood or go to jail” ruling is technically illegal, because defendants can not be sent to jail for debts that they can’t afford to pay. The legal procedure is to hold a hearing to evaluate the financial well-being of each defendant. If they are deemed financially stable enough to pay, they are expected to. Otherwise, they can not be imprisoned. And the order to “give blood” in place of real money is considered both illegal and medically unethical.

Wiggins reportedly gave this ruling to approximately 500 defendants found guilty of a wide range of crimes, according to the Huffington Post. They were given a credit of $100 against their debt and permitted to walk free if they simply agreed to give blood. The judge summoned all of the defendants who were struggling to pay fines and offered them a lenient alternative. Many of them took the “give blood” option and flocked to a local blood bank.

An official from the Distract Attorney’s office reportedly spoke to a blood bank worker and asked, “Did we bring you all a lot of people?”

To which the blood bank worker responded, “You sure did.”

The decision was the result of a larger effort in Alabama to collect outstanding fines, court costs, restitution and lawyer fees that had not been paid.

In response to the “give blood or go to jail” ruling, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint against Judge Marvin Wiggins.

“People who couldn’t pay their court debt with cash literally paid with their blood… In giving these orders, Judge Wiggins did not ‘respect and comply with the law,'” says the complaint.

Southern Poverty Law Center Morris Dees, photo by Mark Wilson, Getty Images
Southern Poverty Law Center Morris Dees, photo by Mark Wilson, Getty Images

A recording of the September 17 hearing was included in the ethics complaint, wherein Judge Marvin Wiggins explicitly tells defendants to give blood.

“So, if you do not have any money and you 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.”

The New York Times contacted Marvin Wiggins, but the judge declined to comment. They also spoke to a professor of medical ethics at NYO Langone Medical Center named Arthur L. Caplan about the bizarre “give blood or go to jail” ruling.

“What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways,” Caplan said. “You’re basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn’t benefit them and isn’t protecting the public health.”

What do you think about Judge Wiggins’ ruling? Is it ethical to allow poor defendants to give blood instead of paying outstanding court fines? Would you give blood to avoid going to jail?

[Photos by Tim Matsui, Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)