Should People Be Jailed for Being Too Poor to Pay Fines?

Written by Aimee Kuvadia

Unpaid traffic tickets ultimately caused a man’s untimely death behind bars, leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan to call for an investigation into the jail.

For $772 in outstanding fines, Joseph Boedeker sentenced David Stojcevski to 30 days in a correctional facility, where cameras captured him naked, thrashing about on the floor. It was clear he was struggling, but the medical staff never intervened, a failure the ACLU called “unconscionable” in its letter to the US Justice Department.

While the conduct Macomb County Jail is in itself unsettling, even more distressing is how the sentence itself may have not been legal, a recent BuzzFeed News investigation found.

Unanimous Supreme Court rulings along with several Michigan court decisions have determined judges must assess whether a defendant is capable of paying fines prior to incarcerating them for failing to do so.

Court transcripts reveal that Boedeker didn’t ask Stojcevski a single question about his financial situation, telling him he could either spend 30 days behind bars or pay the money he owed.

“As soon as you pay, you can be released,” he said.

Stojcevski had two options: pay or stay. Citing the 1983 Supreme Court ruling Bearden v. Georgia, the ACLU argues that such sentences are “unconstitutional,” because they imply two separate systems, one for the well-off and one for the less fortunate. For the same offenses, “the poor are incarcerated while the wealthy go free.”

Stojcevski’s death has not only attracted the attention of the FBI but is the subject of a lawsuit filed by his family, who claims jail officials’ failure to take into account the fact Stojcevski was addicted to several drugs — he was prescribed to methadone and using Xanax and Klonopin — caused his death. He was incarcerated and 16 short days later, passed away in his cell, having lost 45 pounds. The coroner deemed the cause of death “Acute Withdrawal.”

Neither the judge nor jail concede wrongdoing. Boedeker told BuzzFeed News he hadn’t broken any laws since Stojcevski had failed to appear at two court dates and “willfully” opted to not pay the tickets.

“I determined that he was in contempt because he had made no good-faith effort to pay,” he said. However, a recent Michigan court ruling determined that even if defendants miss hearings, it’s still the responsibility of judges to determine whether they are actually able to pay fines.

Maycomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham maintains jail officials performed their jobs properly and that the recordings of Stojcevski’s final hours misrepresent what actually transpired.

The ACLU has been on a mission to do away with so-called “pay or stay” sentences for quite some time; Stojcevski only adds fuel to their fight. The civil rights group just recently won a case in which a woman was at risk of incarceration if she couldn’t pay a $455 fine from a “no dog license” ticket.

“Pay or stay” sentences are not unique to Michigan. In the town of Ferguson, Missouri, where teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson, people are systematically jailed for a failing to fulfill their debts.

The ACLU’s letter alleges that “(h)undreds if not thousands” of people in Michigan are put behind bars due to an inability to pay fines and that Stojcevski was only the latest casualty of this practice. Christopher Drewek, also an inmate at Macomb County Jail, killed himself in 2010.

The letter reads, “Mr. Stojcevski’s death is a horrific reminder that even short incarceration on a ‘pay or stay’ sentence can have terrible consequences.”

This post originally appeared on RYOT


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

There has to be some kind of punishment for not paying fines. Maybe community service would have been a better consequence though.

Georgina Elizab McAlliste
.2 years ago


janet T.
janet t2 years ago

next thing you see will be somebody issuing Lettres de Cachet! They just keep moving backwards in time.

Little A.
Little A2 years ago

Not paying fines is an offence not a crime, right?
Prison time, a criminal record for not paying fines, seems to be a harsh punishment for an offence.

I think it points to a lack of solution and/or will to deal with the addicted, the psychiatric, the offenders and equal them to criminals.
Only criminals should serve jail time.

pam w.
pam w2 years ago

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Let them go there."

.............................Ebeneezer Scrooge

Nancy Wrightington

This is just the continuous reason to be very scared and wary as all our states are becoming police states.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F2 years ago


Danny Chan
Danny C2 years ago

They shouldn't be sent to jail. Perhaps they can be sent to perform community service, such as cleaning our public spaces or some other form of community work. But jail sentences are far too harsh--the punishment needs to fit the crime.