Dan Colby is a Black restaurant worker and single caregiver of a teenage son and grandson. A few summers ago, police in north Georgia pulled Colby over for a broken taillight, which led to a driving without a license charge. Without counsel, Colby pled guilty to both charges in a misdemeanor court. The court imposed a $575 fine, and the judge asked if Colby could pay his fine before leaving court that day. Colby could not, and, for that reason alone, the court ordered him to serve 12 months of probation. With probation came a community service requirement, monthly reporting to a probation officer, and monthly supervision fees to a for-profit probation company. Colby’s inability to pay $575 on the day of court nearly doubled his court debt.
Nevertheless, Colby completed his community service hours the following month. He also made timely payments and reported as required for months. But things took an unfortunate turn when Colby had major back surgery that temporarily left him in a body cast. And then the restaurant where Colby worked closed, and he lost his job. His timely payments to the for-profit probation company stopped.
Colby explained to his probation officer that his limited income was preventing him from making payments. Rather than respond with empathy and help Colby develop a plan to find a new job, the officer went to the court and obtained an arrest warrant. In executing this warrant, sheriff’s deputies went to Colby’s home at 4 a.m., arrested him, and took him to jail for no other reason than his inability to pay fines and probation fees. Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services arrived soon after, taking Colby’s son and grandson and putting them in foster care. The Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights took legal action to prevent future arrests and family separations stemming from Colby’s court debt, and Colby’s probation was terminated as a result.
Though he no longer has to worry about the life-shattering effect of unpaid traffic fines, Colby’s experience reminds us that poverty traps people in our legal system long after conviction and too often for vehicle and traffic violations.