Rural Alabama Judge Marvin Wiggins is in trouble for essentially ordering poor defendants to donate blood or go to jail.
A report in the New York Times outed this unusual practice, which was inflicted on poor people unable to pay their fines. One of those defendants, Carl Crocker, recorded a September 17 fine-collection hearing, and it is this evidence that has landed Wiggins in hot water.
Now, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed an ethics complaint against Judge Marvin Wiggins, accusing him of violating poor defendants “bodily integrity” and holding an unconstitutional court proceeding.
“What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways,” said medical ethics professor Arthur L. Caplan. “You’re basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn’t benefit them and isn’t protecting the public health.”
At the September hearing, Judge Marvin Wiggins — a circuit judge in Perry County since 1999 — called defendants’ attention to the blood drive outside the courthouse before the hearing began.
Then he informed everyone, “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”
And if they didn’t want to?
“The sheriff has enough handcuffs,” he said.
In return for donating, defendants were told they would not just avoid jail time, but get $100 credit against their fine. According to the SPLC, many of them never saw this credit even though they returned their receipts to the clerk as required.
Dozens of them lined up at a mobile bank parked in the street. Crocker said one older man passed out after donating. A lawyer in the courtroom that day, James M. Barnes Jr., called Judge Marvin Wiggins’ alternate payment system “really unusual.”
U.S. courts and local governments have come under fire recently for inflicting fines on the poor and working-class for minor offenses in order to generate revenue. Courts in Alabama are no different, and their efforts to collect outstanding fines, restitution, court costs, and lawyer fees — mostly from indigent people — were described by the Times as aggressive. Payment-due hearings, like the one held by Judge Marvin last month, are a new state initiative.
According to CBS News, the SPLC complaint said he often requires poor offenders to pay for their court-appointed attorney; this is allowed by law, but only if the court determines they are able to pay. They often don’t bother making that determination.
The offenders who appeared before Wiggins last month weren’t told the hearing would have anything to do with their fines. Most of them were indigent and “almost every case included substantial fees that the court charged of defendants…. in order to recoup money paid for appointed counsel,” according to the ethics complaint. At least one was told by the circuit clerk’s office that they didn’t need a lawyer present.
Then came the surprise order from Judge Marvin Wiggins when they arrived.
“If you don’t have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today.”
Judges used to do this back in the mid-20th century as an alternative to paying a fine. It was also common to require prisoners to get cash or reduced sentences for donating. Fears of hepatitis halted this system, and now it’s entirely voluntary.
Except if you’re in Judge Marvin Wiggins’ courtroom.
SPLC also alleges that the person who set up the mobile bank across from the courthouse knew the details of the arrangement. Her employer, LifeSouth, said she violated company policy by participating.
So what happened to all that blood Judge Marvin Wiggins required offenders to donate? Firstly, most hospitals won’t accept anything if it’s paid for. Secondly, LifeSouth tested the donations from offenders and tried to contact them, but eventually threw out nearly all of it.
“People who couldn’t pay their debt with cash literally paid with their blood,” said SPLC attorney Sara Zampierin. “This is a shocking disregard for not only judicial ethics but for the constitutional rights of defendants.”
[Image via taewafeel / Shutterstock]