ACLU warns Sandusky Muni Court to stop jailing debtors

Report says Ohio judges and courts are violating U.S. and state constitution sending people to jail for not paying fines.
Apr 4, 2013


Click here to read letter to Sandusky Municipal Court, warning O'Brien to stop the practice or face a federal lawsuit.  

"The U.S.Constitution has long prohibited the use of debtors' prisons to incarcerate defendants who cannot afford to pay fines and court costs," Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio wrote to O'Brien. 

"It is our sincere hope that we can avoid instituting litigation over these issues," Link wrote, asking O'Brien to stop the practice and establish a written policy detailing compliance with the law. She also asked O'Brien to "remove from the total amounts owed by defendants any costs and fees charged to them as a result of warrants based on failure to pay fines and costs." 

The letter was copied to Ohio Supreme Court chief Justice Maureen O'Connor.

Get the Register to read about reaction to to the ACLU's complaint against Sandusky Municipal Court. 

Click here to watch videos interviews with Ohioans who were incarcerated after failing to pay debt.

Click here to read the report. 



Looks like a good time to examine past records of this travesty of justice taking place over the years. Unfortunately I have first hand knowledge of this BS happening at least 10 years ago. Pathetic way to obtain salary for all those employed in law enforcement.


An additional travesty is throwing people in jail for failing to pay child support. It is also using prison to coerce payment of a debt which the Constitution prohibits but the Courts do it dishonestly by calling it Contempt of Court. What a joke. They don't have to prove you failed to pay when you had the ability to pay. The burden of proof is switched around where the debtor must prove he couldn't pay. What a bunch of BS.

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I agree it is is a travesty when someone is jailed for not paying child support, jail is way to good for low lifes that fail to support their own children.

Eda M. Handly

"Coerce payment of a debt which the Constitution prohibits..."? Are you serious? Men and women who fail to take care of their children is the bigger joke. However, I do not agree putting them in jail solves the problem. No one can work and make a living in jail, then how in the world are they supposed to even try to pay? It doesn't make sense. But please don't start that militia crap... Take care of your kids or keep it in your pants. Period.


Some of you people need to actually read the Constitution some time. It actually says in black and white that no one shall be imprisoned for debt. The constitutional procedure is to reduce the unpaid fines or court costs or child support to a civil judgment against the person and then collect it like any other debt with liens, attachments, garnishments, etc. Imprisonment is specifically prohibited by the Constitution. You can't go to jail if don't pay your credit card bill and shouldn't be going to jail if you don't pay your bill for fines or court costs or child support.

It's very simple but some courts including the Sandusky Municipal Court have been violating the Constitution for years. Other courts imprisoning people for failing to pay a child support debt is equally unconstitutional. It seems like the only way to stop this repeated constitutional violation would be to file a Federal lawsuit against the public officials who violate a person's constitutional rights by imprisoning them for debt. Let's see how long they keep violating the Constitution when they are facing a substantial money judgment against them personally. Perhaps they will stop then.

And yes, I am a lawyer so I know what I'm talking about. I'm also a single father with custody of three minor children and I haven't seem a dime of child support from their deadbeat mom in years. Nonetheless, I still understand that it is unconstitutional to put some one in jail for failing to pay a debt.

Julie R.


Eda M. Handly

I am very well aware of this. However, the way you worded your last comment seemed as if you were heading down another road entirely...


I know this is a burden to the system and the honest hard working tax payers that take care and responsiablity for their children , I know one guy that has 6 kids and will not go to work and then get mad when the law catches up to him , he has no intention of paying his share to help raise his kids that he helped bring into this world
The thing that bothers me most is now he is using women to support him and not doing anything to try and help her .Its a shame , a real shame


Hahahaha.... The money has to come from somewhere to build these BRAND NEW court houses; the judges illegally threaten citizens to pay or be jailed for it. Speaking of new court houses and illegal debt collection practices, it looks like these clowns are extorting indigent people to help build their surplus of funds...

Preliminary estimates on construction costs for a new Erie County Municipal Courthouse range from $2 million to $4 million.

O'Brien, who oversaw about 15,000 cases in 2012, vowed to contribute $1.85 million of his own court budget for an updated courthouse, be it new or refurbished.

The judge stashed away surplus money from years past, sparing taxpayers from fronting any additional money for the project.

As a comparison, Erie County Municipal Court Judge Paul Lux spent $1.7 million for a revamped courthouse on Mason Road West in Milan Township.

Lux's facility, also paid for with surpluses from years past, should open in the coming weeks...


Moderators have removed this comment because it contained Personal attacks (including: name calling, presumption of guilt or guilt by association, insensitivity, or picking fights).

swiss cheese kat

It's not a crime to owe money.


Absolutely correct. That's why you can't put some one in jail for failing to pay a debt. It's in the Constitution. Everyone wants to complain about violating the Right to Bare Arms in the Second Amendment but some of the same people not only ignore the specific prohibition against imprisoning for debt in the Constitution itself, not an amendment, but actively support violating the Constitution. What a bunch of hypocrites. One person spending a day in jail for failing to pay a debt is a sustantially larger constitutional violation than all the gun control laws in the entire country.


you cant get blood from a stone. If you have no income , jail isnt gonna change that fact.....Duh. Charles Dickens Dad was in Debters prison, he just sat there..... still no money.........sat there....still broke.....sat some cash......Today our taxes would pay for him to sit in jail......still no income.


Yet they have money for drugs, cigs, booze, iPhones, laptops, gaming systems etc. Throw their butts in the slammer!!

John Harville

Ah MIKEL... SO PROUD... you NEVER miss a chance to nail everyone to the same wall and paint with a very wide tar-filled brush.
Ah Karma can be an ugly betch and you're just building sooooooooo much it's gonna be painful when it falls...


it's simple johnny boy, pay your freakin bills before you spend your money on bullsh!t and you won't have problems now will you.

if billy bob pays $100 per month for his i-phone but doesn't pay his $189 bill to the courts why is he not punished? apparently, he has the means if he can afford that i-phone.

our society has become one of wants not needs and people like you are an accessory to the demise of this country's financial stability.


@Mikel...does billy bob not have the RIGHT to chose which bill he intends to pay, or do you wish to chose which bill he pays? It sounds as if you want to make that decision for him. You would chose that he pay the bill to the court, rather than have him pay his phone bill. How is that freedom if you tell him which bill he MUST pay VS the bill he CHOSES to pay? I think that is more like a communistic or totalitarian situation removing his freedom of choice when you tell billy bob that you are now in charge of his decision on which bill he pays with his own money.

Sorry, but I just couldn't resist that. Your logic sort of made me think that you would remove a liberty from a person by demanding that he do what YOU say in paying the bill rather than allowing him his choice of freedom, which is what I always thought we had in America. Just a thought.


I am just saying that if you can afford non-necessity items that you should be held accountable. Instead of an I-phone one could use a simple Trac phone until their bill was paid. Instead of cable with the "deluxe" package they could just get the very basic package until your bills are paid to the courts that's all I am saying.

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ACLU=All Criminals Loves Us, when an attorney can't get a real job, they turn to the ACLU for employment.


@ JUSTUS4liberty

Uhm.....what the h*ll are you talking about??? Are you so ignorant that you can't see the problem with this IF its true???? How else are you going to make these people pay their fines????? Has this country gotten soooo bad that people have yet another reason not to have a job?? Tell me how moronic this sounds: a guy walks into a court room has no job or no money, thus he's indigent...but he owes thousands in fines and court costs from crimes HE'S you are you going to make him live up to his responsibilities??? This is a joke!!!! You think fines are used to help pay law enforcement??? Have you ever even read a book??? SOOO ignorant!!! You my friend are a prime example of what's wrong with this country!!!


When it comes to ignorant, it seems JohnDorian12 is at the top of the list. Try actually reading the Constitution some time. It actually says that no one shall be imprisoned for debt and yet some Courts repeatedly and knowingly violate the Constitution. The Constitution is not a technicality. It's the law of the land.

John Harville

jas... c'mon. Posters the like of Dorian and Mikel only haul out the Constitution when it suits their attitudes.


ahhh johnny boy. please tell when i said anything about the constitution! thats what i figured i never did.


I'm guessing that if you check - you'll find lots of comments about the 2nd ammendment from both of them. This is how your typical right winger thinks - I'll use the constitution when it benefits me, otherwise, we aren't going to bother with it because it would make them look like non-thinkers.


Agreed 100% johndorian the scum of this town already gets off way to easy now they arent even held accountable for their fines. Let them pay with their welfare they spend on booze and drugs. Does that mean i can just get a ton of tickets and not pay them cuz who cares state says i dont have to. Thats a bunch of crap thats why this country is a joke the laws are geared to benefit the criminals

John Harville

FOOLS... so now you don't like the Constitution?

The Founding Fathers to whom all of you love to refer were adamant about Debtors Prisons - especially since many of our greatest citizens themselves OR parents were sent here when 'the colonies' and Australia were used as debtor colonies or penal colonies.
So... how about we load up all the locals who are delinquent (ever bounce a check or been late on the mortgage?) and send them to... uh... the moon?


You and other's like you are idiots-do a little research on the topic before you spout off. There was a reason why this was included in our Constitution. I've had my dog run off before and was fined. Unfortunately, I was working minimum wage job while supporting two kids as a single mom. There were times when my hours would be cut and I got behind on my fines.I live in Norwalk so I faced a mandatory 10 day sit in jail. Lose my job? lose my apt.? lose custody of my kids? The min. you can agree to in an extended payment plan here was $25-$30. After paying rent,food,utilities etc. there wouldn't be $25-$30 left. As for working it off, I asked Ridge that one time and his reply was I would have to pay the costs associated with community service! Gee if I can't pay the monthly amount, how do you expect me to pay those costs? And not everyone who collects or has collected welfare or food stamps or had help with daycare are scumbags. Alot of people on here need a grip on reality.


So what are we can commit crimes,then claim that you are indigent and then not face any consequences for your actions! All the while you are standing in front of us buying your junk food with food stamps at the check out line and paying cash for your booze and cigarettes!!! I am sorry ,but if the ACLU wants a fight, we as hard working tax paying citizens need to put an end to all the fee loading going on in this country!!

John Harville

The courts have payment plans.... but these judges aren't using them.

BW1's picture

Alternatively, defendants could be sentenced to jail instead of fines in the first place, with the option to pay a fine in lieu of incarceration. Or just sentence them to jail time, period. When a defendant has no job, they have more time than money, so give them a burden they can meet.

The difference is, they'd be sentenced to a set period, rather than sitting in jail until the fine was paid.


The problem starts with the courts refusing to put the criminals in jail and lets them out with simple fines, knowing they can't afford the fines. I'm not sure that the ACLU letter would refer to someone who was given a fine in lue of jailtime and under that condition if they did not pay the fine the jail time would automatically commence. That would be a different situation. If the courts would put the bad guys in jail in th efirst place, this would not be an issue. O'Brien has always been one to let the bad guys go with a fine or slap on the wrist. Now, he needs to start collecting money - so this is happening. Also, you don't want drug testing for welfare people - why not stop welfare until criminals pay fines???

BW1's picture

Absolutely. The point is that if you sentence them to jail in the first place, it'a fixed sentence.


There is a strong flavor of feminist bias in this letter, regardless of the merit of the argument. I find it insulting to violate the centuries-long practice of using the male gender as comprehensive. Ignoring the principles of the English language weakens the stature of the effort.


Seriously.....If you can't pay your fines, don't break the law. Even better...Find a job and maybe you won't have the time to think about it. I think this has to be one of the most stupid things I have ever heard the ACLU or any other entity come up with. I didn't even take the time to read the PDF. The article enraged me enough. Fine, if it is a non-violent offender, include community service as one of options as opposed to paying fines. Tasks that no one wants.


Please read the Constitution. It will make you smarter.

Pterocarya frax...

It is hilarious when conservatives rail on and on about the gubmint stealin' their rights, and destroying the Constitution. Then when the ACLU steps up to defend those rights, those conservative brains just explode.

swiss cheese kat

You would be the first in line to give up your 1st amendment right in a trade for others to give up their 2nd amendment right?


If a defendant is found to be indigent. Don't impose a fine which he cannot pay. Another punishment should be used like community service, this would be especially useful for the unemployed who would have time to carry out their community service. Space in jail should be saved for the dangerous criminals.


I just read through all the comments here, and this one absolutely makes sense. I understand how many people think that not jailing a debtor is tantamount to getting off 'scot-free', as it were, but to jail such people is illegal and pointless. Your suggestion, Mum-of-One, is an excellent resolution to the problem.


I agree, make them go to community service instead of paying a fine if they can't afford it. I don't think they should go to jail if they have proof they can't afford to pay, but I do think they still need to be held accountable... Community service sounds perfect!


mcdonalds is hiring! maybe the courts should have applications readily available at sentencing. once sentenced they give these idiots an application tell them to get a job and then attach their wages.

i know its a little much to ask people to be responsible for their actions!!

John Harville

Mikel... YOU quit your present job and go to work at McDonalds 30 hours a week at 7.85/hour with no benefits. Freeze your savings and checking accounts and live ONLY on your McDonald's wages.
Hellsbells! You're not wo/man enough to do it!


mikel you are assuming that all of the defendants are idiots. How judgemental! One can lose everything due to illness, injury and personal tragedy in their lives. I do hope that if any of the above does happen to you that someone somewhere has some compassion for you. Or do you think it would be fair to class you as an idiot too? Maybe you should practice on an application for McDonalds now so that you can be ready just in case the unthinkable happens! Good luck.


i guess i should not have assumed that all of these people are unemployed. so, where is the wage garnishment for those that are employed?? problem solved for those individuals.


Why doesn't the ACLU come to support Perkins residents who are being deceived in give up their right to vote on school buildings by a superintendent and school board.

You must vote "no" on the May operating levy or you are accepting the loss of your vote on school buildings. This will be my first negative vote on education.


It's very simple. "Being deceived" as you call it, is not unconstitutional. However, putting some one in jail for failing to pay a debt is specifically prohibited by the Constitution. Big difference.

Julie R.

I heard this was all over the news on T.V. last night. They said Erie County was the worst followed by Cuyahoga County.

your babies Daddy's picture
your babies Daddy

simple enough at the time a sentencing offer them to pay within 48 hours or take their time in jail.

Julie R.

I think some of you commenters are missing the fact that this is ILLEGAL. To reiterate, it's ILLEGAL for judges and courts to violate U.S. and state constitution by sending people to jail for not paying fines ....... so instead of being critical of the people they are sending to jail, why not question instead why there are so many judges in Erie County that think they don't have to follow the law.


Some simpletons don't care. Wait until it happens to them and they will plead for help. Illegal is illegal. The law is the law except for some corrupt judges, prosecutors and corrupt police. Also there are those who bear false witness against innocent people.


If you don't want to pay court fines, don't get in trouble in the first place.

Julie R.

If you want to be a judge and take an oath to uphold the law, then uphold it.



For some reason people cannot grasp this simple concept. No one is responsible for their own action, it's alway someone else's fault.


Not all who go to court are guilty.

John Harville

Centauri... How DARE you insert THAT sick fact? Judges and juries make mistakes?


Part of the reason for this TRAVESTY is the concept of "Prison for Profit". Look up CCA (Corrections Corp America); creating incentives for incarceration. CCA last year made an offer to cash-strapped States to "handle" imprisonment for a new LOW LOW PRICE; provided the States would guarantee occupancy rates! Hhhmmm........


"Prison for Profit" More ways to throw innocent people into prison and severe prison sentences for minor violations of laws. More laws will be passed to increase the populations of these private prisons. The rich and powerful at work making money for themselves.

Have you ever wondered why a person goes to prison for fraud against the insurance companies but if an insurance company commits fraud against a policy holder, it is "bad faith" and a civil offense? Check most laws and the rich and powerful get free passes.


I guess my question is, if you get a speeding ticket, does this mean that you don't have to pay it? If I buy some clothes and put it on credit, then decide not to pay, that's ok? After all, what can they do? Take the worn clothes back? There are lots of things I don't understand about this. To me, it sounds like those that already get something for nothing, will get more.

John Harville

Such generalizations Gammasgurl! Were you speeding? Were there other circumstances?

BW1's picture

If you don't pay traffic fines, they suspend your license


If ya can't pay the fine
Don't do the crime

John Harville

goofass.... so nice to talk to someone who never has exceeded the speed limit, never driven after a beer with the guys, never drove with expired license (careful), never tossed something out the car window, never spat in public (that one is still on the books), never violated curfew as a kid, never tossed trash in the Lake, never took more than the limit, never jaywalked, never walked against the light, never turned right on red in a no-turn zone, never spewed some libel or slander on here?
Never got caught.

Julie R.

@ grandmasgirl: You're missing the point. The U.S. Constitution has long prohibited the use of debtors' prisons to incarcerate defendants who cannot afford to pay fines and court costs. It does not say people that REFUSE to pay; it says people that cannot AFFORD to pay.

Also, if you notice, it says that the Sandusky Munincipal Court didn't even remove from the total amounts owed by the defendants any costs and fees charged to them as a result of warrants based on failure to pay fines and costs. In other words, for each day they spent in jail $50.00 should have been removed from their fines and wasn't.


Many of you may not know this but, Judge Erich O'brien, has a long standing history of breaking the law. He along with several other employees from Sandusky Municipal Court were indicted on multiple charges regarding the theft of public monies around the time the Elsebeth Baumgartner and Krista Harris public corruption scandal was surfacing in Erie County.

The only reason O'brien wasn't convicted was because Chief Justice Thomas Moyer allegedly forced the special prosecutor to dismiss the charges against him.

And now we have breaking news regarding public corruption involving Judge O'brien and other county employees having orderd the illegal detention and arrest of numerous individuals that were subjected to strip searches and deplorable living condtions.

Well, I would say that this sounds like a scandal to me. I wonder when, and if these corrupt officials will be charged and arrested for violating multiple statues including but not limited to: Civil Rights Violations, Sham Legal Process, Kidnapping, Unlawful Restraint, falsification, and Theft by Deception.

More importantly, I think someone should immediately begin the process of filing grievances with the Ohio Disciplinary Counsel to have an investigation into the illegal and unethical actions of Judge Erich O'brien.

I'd also like to suggest an online petition to remove him from office asap.

People it's time to start demanding that your public officials be held to the standards that they hold you too.


West, You mention O'brien and others being indicted. Below I have posted links to a Toledo Blade (Ohio) news article from 2002. Is this what you were referring to?

John Harville

And who was that notorious judge that let suits sit for months or years without deciding them.... Maschari?

I know three different couples who waited as long as four years to get final decrees after all the hearings, temporary orders, support orders. After several years the Supreme Court finally sanctioned her.

Other judges reduce DUI to 'reckless operation' - four or five times - so the drivers wouldn't lose their licences and insurance.

Julie R.

"And who was that notorious judge that let suits sit for months or years without deciding them ... Maschari? I know three different couples who waited as long as four years ......."

Four years? That's nothing. My mother passed away in late 2002. The probate court and the common pleas court of Binette were still playing their games in 2011.

Julie R.

Wow, I never knew that about O'Brien. So how could he still be a judge if he was indicted on theft of public monies in 2002?

Julie R.

Before sending a defendant to jail for failure to pay fines, a judge must hold a hearing to determine if a failure to pay was willful, or if the defendant simply didn't have the money. The hearing must be on record, and the defendant must have an attorney present.

According to ACLU officials there's no evidence of O'Brien ever holding such hearings. There's also no evidence of O'Brien following the law by giving the defendants $50 credit for back fines for each day spent in jail, even though such credits are required by law.


Prosecutors in Erie county don't follow the law either...


Prosecutors in Erie County, Ohio are corrupt and do not follow the laws of Ohio or the US Constitution.


Claimant...You are a fool if you agree to pay a set amount, thanks to the mercy of the courts, and you don't pay it! What do you expect, freedom? Oh, you were "going to pay the payment", but you were arrested on the way. oooops, sorry, you should have thought about that earlier. You pay, or go to jail! Not to mention your 5 kids you never raised. ACLU should better scrutinize, take a closer look about those you cry for, or those you represent.

BW1's picture

Constitutional rights are not limited to "nice people"


Payday Lenders have been exploiting a loophole to get their debtors jailed when the debtors don't pay. Here’s how it works: The creditor goes to court and gets a judgement against the debtor. In many cases, this action is successful only because the debtor never shows up to defend him or herself, oftentimes it being a case of the debtor having never received the paperwork telling them when to show up to court.

Once the creditor has obtained this judgment, they ask the judge for an “examination.” In theory, this process is intended to assess whether or not the indebted person has bank accounts or other assets that can be seized to pay their debts. Creditors are exploiting this process, filing multiple requests for examinations that force people to return to court over and over. And if they don’t appear in court, then the creditor asks for a “body attachment,” which forces the imprisonment of the debtor until the next hearing — or until they cough up bail money that’s often the same amount as the debt, and often is turned over directly to the creditors. In this way, the creditor often gets payment on the original debt as well as on all sorts of add-on interest and penalties.

Creditors say they need to use these methods to make sure people show up for their court dates. But some states are fighting back against the "debtors prison" tactics. As an example, Illinois' governor signed off on a law last year prohibiting the use of body attachments in debt suits.

Constitutionally speaking, it's not legal to jail a person for debt, but where there's money to be made, there are those who will gladly spend a little money to (find loopholes) make a lot of money.

2cents's picture

And the story starts again!

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They can't or won't pay the fines, no problem. Forfeit their drivers license, block their license plate renewal, place it on their credit report as an unpaid debt giving them every incentive to pay up. No constitutional issue or expenses to the taxpayers.


A couple of years ago I paid a fine for a speeding ticket. Standing in the court office at the desk that little girl who's a court police officer took a call. It went something like this....Yes you have to go to jail for 3 days....Yes, three days....That's not my problem, you shouldn't have gotten arrested....Friday....Bye...She then proceeded to laugh and got the girls in the office laughing. "He said he'll lose his job. That's not my problem." Its a joke to all of them. I'm glad they're finally getting caught. Yes, some people just don't pay the fines but some, they can't. And if you've been in court for a ticket you hear that. All in all, being put in jail for not paying is illegal regardless of what this town says.

Julie R.

That sounds kind of similar to some of the unprofessional things I witnessed in the Clerk of Court's office when Barb Johnson was on a medical leave.

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Do you know what the 3 days were for? Three days is the mandated minimum for DUI. Good chance that had nothing to do with fine payments.


Is there any chance of recalling the elected judges who now are sitting on the benches in Erie county as they are elected officials? Seriously?


OK people. First of all, it doesn't mean you are a staunch conservative because you don't agree with the ACLU on something. The other thing I wanted to say is...If I broke the law and faced fines or incarceration, once I gave my savings and couldn't pay anymore what do you think would happen? I would lose my house,my job and have to do my time. Beside the fact that I would not break the law,don't you think this would be somewhat of a deterrent not to do it in the first place? Come on people use some common sense. Don't we have enough law breakers running the streets as it is? The laws are the same for everyone. All of a us.

Julie R.

"Don't we have enough law breakers running the streets as it is?"

That's true ..... and it even includes the ones that wear the black robes.


As far as a traffic violation, pay your fine. What is the big deal. If you need to make arrangements, do that. If the fine exceeds what you can ever possibly pay, than you probably did something more serious, something to intentionally break the law. DUI, DUS etc. These are not driving. " mistakes".

Julie R.

Erie County sure has some real sorry excuses for judges, don't they? I already knew that fact from personal experience but I never knew any of those things about O'Brien. Did the SR carry that story back in 2002? If so, I must have missed it. I know of others that said they must have missed it, too.


Well if someone dont want to pay fines, then dont get in trouble, I know a few people in Sandusky that view the court like its a joke, and even though they have money to pay on fines they just dont care then cry when they get caught, like they say dont do the crime if you cant do the time. Stop crying about it because in the end most of them know they was breaking the law.


Does the ACLU take into consideration that all these "Poor" people are able to buy beer, cigarettes and drugs, just not pay their fines!! It's time to wake up America!!!!!