“Pretty much half the courts in the state are doing pretty much what we are doing,” O’Brien said. “I sleep nights. We always try to treat people fairly.”
O’Brien said he rarely orders jail sentences for defendants who haven’t paid fines.
“I can’t remember the last time I did that,” he said.
He and court clerk Peggy Rice always work with people who have trouble paying their fines, O’Brien said.
Still, the ACLU may have a point in objecting to the arrest of people who haven’t paid fines, even if these people seldom stay long in jail, O’Brien said.
He has since halted these types of arrests and is now taking a hard look at his policies.
O’Brien’s name popped up in the news earlier this month, after the Ohio chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union called a press conference in Cleveland, alleging several local courts in Ohio — including municipal courts in Sandusky and Norwalk — operate “debtors’ prisons” by putting poor people in jail without regard for the law.
Before anyone can be jailed for failure to pay fines, a judge must hold an on-the-record hearing with a defendant’s attorney present, the ACLU has said.
The hearing should determine if the failure to pay was willful, or the person simply didn’t have money.
The computer system used by the court clerks is programmed to spit out the names of convicted defendants who have not made payments toward their fines during a three-month period, O’Brien said. If someone has paid $5 during that period, the name won’t pop up.
O’Brien said he often makes community service available as an alternative to fines, and his door is open to anyone who wants to discuss their struggle to pay fines.
O’Brien said it’s true he has issued arrest warrants for people who owe fines and make no apparent attempt to pay them, but once these people are taken to jail they seldom stay long because there’s no room for them there. If they aren’t released right away, they’re released after a hearing the next day, he said.
The ACLU apparently believes judges should hold a hearing prior to a defendant staying in jail even briefly, O’Brien said, but this simply would not be practical because the court i busy and does not have time for such hearings.
O’Brien has promised the ACLU he will review his policies. A formal response to the allegations should be ready in a few months, perhaps by June.
O’Brien said his court, like most muni courts, is expected to be self-supporting. If jail is taken away as a sanction, the only remaining sanction may be to take away driving privileges — a threat that doesn’t work with everyone.
Another possibility: Turn over unpaid fines to a private collection agency. If defendants won’t pay up when threatened with jail, however, they may not be swayed by warnings about their worsening worsening credit score.
During the recent press conference, ACLU officials introduced Jack Dawley, a Norwalk resident who described being arrested in May 2012 on a warrant by Perkins police.
Dawley said he was arrested and sent to jail for 10 days without a hearing and without seeing a judge. While in jail, he lost his job and his apartment and he resorted to sleeping on friends’ couches.
Norwalk Municipal Court Judge John Ridge, who retired in December, has been serving as an interim judge for Norwalk since then, pending Gov. John Kasich’s appointment of a successor.
“I’d like to hear John’s version of what happened,” O’Brien said of Dawley’s complaint.
If Dawley’s version of events is accurate, he has a legitimate grief, O’Brien said.
“You don’t just throw people in jail for 10 days,” said O’Brien, calling the apparent treatment “unconscionable.”
The Register has asked Ridge to talk about the ACLU’s allegations, and about Dawley’s account, but Ridge has refused.
Asked about being the target of the ACLU’s criticism, O’Brien said: “I love my job because I never know what’s going to happen from day to day.”
He said usually he’s criticized for not being hard enough on defendants. Referring to the ACLU, he said, “Honestly, I can see where they are coming from on this.”