Update on “Debtor Prison” Litigation Filed in 2015
Efforts continued in 2016 to reform the City of Austin’s practice of jailing individuals for failing to pay fines for petty misdemeanors and traffic tickets and failing to appoint counsel to those subject to those penalties. The action brought in the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas by a team of lawyers from Drinker Biddle, Susman Godfrey, Texas Fair Defense Project and the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic was amended and refiled as Harris v. City of Austin, following which a setback was suffered when the district court dismissed that action without prejudice on March 16, 2016. The district court’s ruling does not prevent a new filing on behalf of a different plaintiff, but since the court’s ruling the litigation team has been working with a broad coalition on local legislative reforms to end the process of jailing individuals for petty misdemeanors and traffic tickets and to appoint counsel for those individuals.
The American Immigration Council (“AIC”) represented by Drinker Biddle brought suit in the United States District Courts for the District of Columbia on June 6, 2016, to force the United States Customs and Border Protection Service (“CBP”) to turn over information to it about complaints against agency personnel nine months after seeking the records through a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request.
The suit seeks an order forcing the prompt research and handover of information AIC requested in October regarding allegations of misconduct and the processing of complaints against CBP personnel, so that CBP can follow up earlier reports that detailed allegations of force and abusive behavior that, for the most part, met with no action by CBP.
In a previous FOIA request, the not-for-profit American Immigration Council obtained data from CBP containing information on 809 abuse complaints against CBP agents. That information was the basis of a 2014 AIC report called “No Action Taken: Lack of CBP Accountability Responding to Complaints of Abuse.” That report found that in nine Southwestern Border Patrol sectors, 40 percent of the complaints were for “physical abuse” and another 38 percent were for “excessive force.” Ninety-seven percent of the 809 cases examined were resolved by CBP as “no action,” according to the AIC’s report. The suit is an effort to follow up on that report and to measure any progress made since January 2012.