The exterior of Black Hawk Sheriff’s Office.

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against an Iowa sheriff’s department over jail fees.The lawsuit alleges misuse of funds on things like laser tag and ice cream machines.The class-action suit was filed on behalf of a single mom charged $730 in fees.

Civil rights groups initiated a class-action lawsuit on Monday, accusing an Iowa sheriff’s department and its sheriff of unlawfully collecting jail fees and using some of the proceeds to fund laser tag, ice cream, and a cotton candy machine.

According to the lawsuit, Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson implemented a policy that mandated payment to the jail for “room and board” at a rate of $70 per day, plus $25 in admin fees — collectively referred to as “jail fees.”

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court for the Nothern District of Iowa, says that the fees were enforced by presenting individuals serving a sentence at the jail with a confession of judgment to sign prior to being released. Any funds on their person were seized and applied to the debt.

The suit, initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Public Justice, contends that there were no opportunities for a hearing or to mount a defense against the imposition of fees.

Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a statement that prisoners being made to sign confessions of judgment are powerless.

“They have no bargaining power, no attorney, and zero meaningful understanding of what they are doing and what they are giving up,” she said.

In a statement provided to Business Insider by email, Sheriff Thompson claimed that inmates are not required to sign confessions of judgment or to enter into payment plans.

Laser tag, ice cream, and cotton candy machines

According to the lawsuit, the policy is a money maker for Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office. It said that the department collected $590,217.36 in jail fees between July 2021 to July 2023.

Some counties don’t collect jail fees at all because they see the practice as unfair, the ACLU and Public Justice said in a joint statement.

The lawsuit says that while 60% of the fees collected are allocated for specific expenditures, 40% are unallocated, a portion of which went to frivolous spending.

Some of the funds went to the Raymond Range, a gun range used by employees and their families, which was outfitted with laser tag equipment, ice cream machines, and cotton candy machines, according to the lawsuit.

In the statement provided to BI, Sheriff Thompson said it would seem “disingenuous” to have these expenditures — which he said contribute to the training and emotional betterment of officers — paid for by the taxpayer.

“When they pay for their stay in jail, they are helping fund training for the law enforcement profession, families, and our communities by providing programming that destigmatizes the profession of law enforcement just a bit,” he added.

Filed on behalf of a single mom

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Leticia Roberts, a single mother of three, who served sentences in 2022 for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated,

According to the suit, Roberts was invoiced $730 in jail fees, with two confessions of judgment being used to impose the fees without a court order.

In one of them, it was noted that Roberts said she could not afford the fee because she “needs to feed her 3 kids.”

Nonetheless, she received a collection letter two weeks later warning her that non-payment could lead to “further enforcement steps” or an increased fee, the lawsuit says.

In the joint statement by the ACLU and Public Justice, Roberts said she wanted to take a stand against the practice.

“Shaking down people for money as they get released from jail is wrong,” she said.

Charles Moore, a staff attorney for Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project, said in a statement that “most of the people paying are trying to get their lives together and under extreme financial stress, so wrongfully extracting money from them at that difficult point is particularly heartless.”

The class-action suit aims for unspecified compensatory damages, the declaration of confessions of judgment as unlawful, and injunctive relief against the practice.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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