SCHR Continues to Challenge LaGrange, GA, Policies That Restrict Access to Basic Utility Services

Charles Brewer, of LaGrange, suffers from serious sleep apnea and congestive heart failure. The 55-year old’s health problems render him unable to work, and his sole source of income is the disability payment he receives monthly.

In 2014, Brewer pleaded no contest to driving without a license, and was placed on probation. In October 2015, the City transferred $210.25 in unpaid municipal court fines to the city’s collection agency. In March 2016, Brewer applied for utilities in the home he had just moved in to, and was obligated to sign a statement which read: “Applicants with delinquent amounts owed to the City of any type shall be subject to having utility services terminated for failure to pay said debts.”

Five months later, Brewer received a letter from the City, warning him that his utilities would be cut off if his court debt – which was accruing interest each month – was not paid. Both Brewer’s oxygen tank and CPAP machine require electricity to run. Terrified at the prospect of losing these life-sustaining machines, he explained his situation to the City, who claimed to have added a “medical no-cut” notation to his file. Despite this, Brewer continued to receive threats of service interruption.

In May 2017, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the National Immigration Law Center, and Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC filed a lawsuit against the City of LaGrange, Georgia challenging two utility-related policies. The first conditions utility service access on the payment of municipal court debt; if residents are unable to pay outstanding court fines, they risk having utilities turned off completely. The second policy requires individuals seeking utility services to provide a valid social security number and a government-issued photo ID. In December, our suit was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia because, in its view, the Fair Housing Act only applies to pre-acquisition claims (or discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to obtain housing), not post-acquisition claims challenging discriminatory policies that affect a person’s ability to keep housing.

Last month, we filed an appeal in the Eleventh Circuit. Multiple organizations from across the country, and four former Assistant HUD Secretaries, submitted amicus briefs to the Eleventh Circuit in support of our position, including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, the Georgia Legal Services Program, and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation.

Brewer’s story is not an anomaly in LaGrange. In an attempt to lure new residents and businesses to the City, LaGrange doesn’t levy property taxes. Instead, a large portion of the city’s municipal operations are funded by the sale of utilities to residents. The city is the sole utility provider, a monopoly which allows them to both extort unpaid municipal court fines from city residents by withholding utilities as well as restricting immigrants’ access to utilities.

Atteeyah Hollie.

“There are enough collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.  Losing one’s water and electricity shouldn’t be one of them,” says Atteeyah Hollie, an SCHR staff attorney and counsel for the Plaintiffs.

Along with the Court Debt Policy, our lawsuit also challenges the city’s Immigrant Utilities Policy, which confines access to utilities to residents with US government-issued identification and social security numbers. Many undocumented residents are forced to open utility accounts via an agreeable third-party – a desperate act which violates another LaGrange city ordinance.

Plaintiff, John Doe #3, has resided in LaGrange for over a decade. He owns the home that he lives in with his wife and two young children. Doe has both an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) provided to him by the IRS, as well as a Mexican government-issued photo ID. Neither form of identification is deemed sufficient to open a utilities account with LaGrange, forcing Doe to ask a friend to open the family’s utility account, thereby risking criminal prosecution. The family’s only legal option? Live without access to electricity and water.

These policies are not only inhumane – they’re illegal. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) forbids discrimination in the provision of services relating to the use of a dwelling due to race, color, or nationality. It also protects against housing policies which have an unjust impact on members of a protected group. The Court Debt policy disproportionately harms LaGrange’s Black residents, who make up less than 50% of the city’s population but more than 90% of those with debt added to their utility bills. The Immigrant Utilities Policy unfairly impacts immigrants, primarily Latinos.  The Court Debt policy also violates state law in that it conditions utility services on the payment of unrelated debt.

Legislation Would Further Exacerbate Wealth-Based Detention in Georgia

Yesterday, following a three hour hearing on SB 452, the legislation passed out of the House Public Safety Committee.

Sponsored by a group of Republican state senators, the legislation would mandate that local police notify prosecutors when they learn that a suspect is in the country illegally. SB 452 would also require the courts sentencing these suspects to determine whether they are here without proper documentation and to pass that information along to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Local jails would also be required to notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement before unauthorized immigrants are released from custody.

Unfortunately, SB 452 now includes language that would prohibit meaningful bail reform across the state of Georgia. The legislation would prohibit the release of people on their own recognizance (including for local ordinance violations) until after he or she has been before a judge. This proposal is the product of the bail bond industry, and it will be at the expense of local communities and taxpayers.

The bail language in SB 452 would exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing the immediate release of people who have money. The impact of this proposal will be felt by communities and taxpayers that will have to deal with the unnecessary costs of incarcerating people charged with minor non-violent offenses. The state should not force local jurisdictions to impose financial conditions on people charged with minor offenses.

According to SCHR’s Public Policy Director Marissa Dodson,

“Section 2 (Lines 32-41) is extremely problematic for our coalition’s bail reform efforts because, if passed, it will:

  1. Preempt the City of Atlanta’s new bail policy that requires the immediate release of people charged with minor offenses on their own recognizance; and

  2. further exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia by only allowing people to be immediately released from jail when financial conditions are imposed.”

    Critically, this proposal was not recommended by executive and judicial bodies that studied bail for more than 6 months. After seeking the input of relevant stakeholders including law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, impacted people and community groups, and studying Georgia’s bail system for more than six months, a committee appointed by the Judicial Council of Georgia and the Governor’s Council on Criminal Justice reform made findings and recommendations for reform. In its annual report, the Governor’s Council issued recommendations on bail reform to the General Assembly. Several of these recommendations are included in SB 407, which is currently being considered by the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee.

The next step will be for the SB 452 to be considered by the House Rules Committee and then on the floor of the House of Representatives. Can you help us stop this legislation?

CALL TO ACTION:

  1. Contact the Rules Committee and ask for a NO vote on SB 452
    1. In the “To” column cut and paste:

[email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]; [email protected]

    1. Put in the subject line: Vote NO on SB 452
    1. Copy and paste the following (and please feel free to modify as you like):

Members of the House Rules Committee,

Please hold SB 452 without further action. SB 452 will compromise public safety, waste taxpayer dollars and harm the state’s economy. Specifically, the bail provisions in Section 2 will exacerbate wealth-based detention in Georgia and prohibit local jurisdictions from being able to decide whether financial conditions are necessary to ensure court appearance and maintain public safety.

Thank you,

Your name

Street Address

City, State, Zip

2. Contact Speaker Ralston and Gov. Deal

Speaker David Ralston

404-656-5020 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

[email protected]

Governor Nathan Deal

404-656-1776 (Consider putting this number on speed dial)

Click here to use the form on his website

3. Copy and Paste the Call to Action and Send to Your Networks!

Newly Discovered Prosecutors’ Notes Reveal Blatant Race Discrimination in Capital Jury Selection

Today, the Southern Center for Human Rights and the Georgia Innocence Project filed a supplement to a motion for a new trial in the case of Johnny Gates. In 1977, Gates – a black man – was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Columbus, GA.  The prosecutors struck all four black prospective jurors from serving on Gates’s jury. Newly discovered evidence clearly establishes that the prosecutors’ jury strikes in Gates’s case were the product of systematic race discrimination.

Johnny Gates.

In February, the Superior Court of Muscogee County ordered the State to disclose the prosecutors’ jury selection notes from Gates’s trial, as well as from other capital trials involving black defendants in Muscogee County in the late 1970s.  On March 2, the State produced its jury notes.

The notes in every case, including Mr. Gates’s, reveal a deliberate effort to keep black citizens off of the jury.

The newly-obtained notes leave no doubt that the strikes were racially motivated with the goal of obtaining all-white juries:

  • The prosecutors labeled white prospective jurors as “W” and black prospective jurors as “N.”
  • The prosecutors further singled out black prospective jurors for strikes by marking a dot next to the black prospective jurors’ names.
  • The prosecutors described black prospective jurors in derogatory terms, including “slow,” “old + ignorant,” “con artist,” “hostile,” and “fat.”
  • One white prospective juror was described as a “top juror” because he “has to deal with 150 to 200 of these people that work for his construction co.”

“Race discrimination undermines the credibility and reliability of the justice system,” said Patrick Mulvaney, an SCHR attorney representing Mr. Gates.  “Mr. Gates is entitled to a new trial that is fair and free of discrimination.”

The prosecutors’ jury strikes of black citizens confirm the discriminatory intent reflected in their notes.  There were two prosecutors in Gates’s case: Douglas Pullen and William Smith.  In the five capital cases involving black defendants that Pullen tried between 1975 and 1979, the prosecution struck 27 of the 27 black prospective jurors.  Smith had a similar strike record. Additionally, in 2016, the United States Supreme Court held in Foster v. Chatman that Pullen and his co-counsel struck black prospective jurors on the basis of race in a capital case out of Rome, Georgia.

Gates has been incarcerated for the past 41 years based on his 1977 trial.  Though he initially received the death penalty, he was later resentenced to life in prison without parole.

View images of the jury notes here. Read the pleading here.

Gates is represented by Patrick Mulvaney and Katherine Moss from the Southern Center for Human Rights and Clare Gilbert from the Georgia Innocence Project.   

Inadequate Medical Care in Prison Makes Headlines Again

A sick person in detention is entirely at the mercy of the prison or jail for their medical care.

As the result of extreme overcrowding, budget cuts, and the profit priorities of for-profit health care providers, people in prisons, jails and detention facilities with medical needs suffer from scant medical care. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the Deep South, where SCHR has challenged poor medical care and intolerable living conditions in litigation for decades.

Over the weekend, NPR reported on yet another lawsuit challenging the subpar medical care that prisoners — currently the only group in the United States with a constitutional right to healthcare — receive.

Lewis v. Cain

Francis Brauner was instrumental in launching a class-action suit on behalf of all people currently incarcerated at Louisiana’s Angola prison, suing for care that allegedly caused them “needless pain and suffering.” According to NPR, Mr. Brauner was sent to Dixon Correctional Institute in Louisiana in 2005. He was sentenced to 20 years, with hard labor involved. When he was roughly a quarter of the way through his sentence, he was working in the fields when an inexplicable pain shot through him — perhaps some remnant of back trouble caused by a car accident years ago — but intense enough that he could no longer stand up.

Mr. Brauner was taken to a hospital in New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina soon hit the city, and he was moved to Angola prison. He was told the larger facilities would mean better resources and faster treatment. Instead, he languished in bed in the hospital ward for a month, essentially unattended. He developed bedsores so severe that they ate through muscle. He was denied necessary surgeries. He eventually became paralyzed from the waist down.

Soon after arriving at Angola, Mr. Brauner experienced serious lapses in medical attention and kept continuous notes of the subpar care other incarcerated people were receiving in a journal. He shared it with his attorney, Nick Trenticosta. Trenticosta was shocked when he visited the hospital ward at Angola. According to NPR:

“There were open garbage containers,” Trenticosta recounted. “Fly tape hanging from the ceiling with a lot of dead flies on it. Over men’s beds who had open bedsores.”

Mr. Brauner went on to sue several of his Angola doctors and jailers, claiming they were deliberately indifferent to the severity of his medical condition, violating the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Then, in 2015, the ACLU of Louisiana, along with The Promise of Justice Initiative, the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC, and the Advocacy Center filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Lewis v. Cain. According to the ACLU of Louisiana, the “complaint alleges that the [Angola] prison’s more than 6,000 prisoners are all at risk of serious harm, while scores of men have already experienced unnecessary injury, suffering and death.” Late last month, Judge Shelly Dick said the case could proceed as a class action lawsuit on behalf of Angola’s prisoners.

Substandard medical care in detention facilities has created a public health crisis, with more than 600,000 people being released from prison every year and going home to their communities, carrying with them both infectious diseases and medical conditions requiring immediate attention and resources. Medical failures are particularly pervasive in jails, where detainees with serious medical needs are often ignored by a system that knows the average length of stay for jail detainees is 3 months. Rather than treat the individual as a patient, medical systems in jails more often treat them as problems that will leave their jurisdiction in a matter of months.

To ensure adequate medical care for people who are incarcerated, SCHR has brought a number of class action lawsuits.

For example, SCHR filed Leatherwood v. Campbell, a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of all men who were HIV-positive and incarcerated at Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, Alabama. The lawsuit challenged the inadequate medical treatment and deplorable housing provided to HIV-positive men at the facility. The defendants named in the lawsuit were the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and NaphCare Inc., the state’s former private medical provider. The ADOC and the plaintiffs entered into a two-year settlement agreement in which the Defendants agreed to improve HIV medical care at Limestone by ensuring that all incarcerated people who are HIV-positive received their medications, by hiring a full-time HIV Specialist, and by improving the living conditions for all people with HIV at the institution.

Read more about Lewis v Cain here. Read more about SCHR’s history of healthcare advocacy here.