February 23, 2021
ArchCity Defenders, Terrell Marshall, and Gupta Wessler have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of George Richey, an honorably discharged Army veteran, father, and grandfather who has been repeatedly criminalized and incarcerated for being poor and unable to pay court fines and jail board bills in St. Clair County, a rural county located in southwest Missouri. The suit names as defendants St. Clair County, the Circuit Court Clerk, the St. Clair County Sheriff, and a contracted private agency, the Municipal Services Bureau (MSB). These defendants have demanded that Mr. Richey pay his court-ordered costs from his limited Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), which is a violation of the Social Security Act. The lawsuit seeks declaratory relief to announce that the defendants’ actions have violated the law and injunctive relief to prevent the defendants from collecting court-ordered debts from Mr. Richey moving forward.
“I want to get back to being with my family, to being a grandpa. I just want to get on with my life,” said George Richey. “The scales of justice don’t work, they’re not very balanced… I’ve lost everything, I’m rebuilding from the bottom up and that’s stressful enough.”
Click here to read the lawsuit.
From 2015 to the present, Mr. Richey has been torn away from his family, faced major losses, and been unjustly punished for being poor. Between April 2016 and December 2018, the St. Clair County Circuit Court forced Mr. Richey to attend 23 payment review hearings and pay a total of $1,640 of his SSDI benefits for outstanding court-ordered costs to the County and the Court Clerk. During this time, when Mr. Richey was jailed for his inability to pay court fees, he took legal action challenging the modern day debtors’ prison that entrapped him. The case was appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court and in March 2019, the court ruled that people could not be jailed because of their inability to pay jail board bills.
Click here to listen to Mr. Richey talk about his experiences.
“For years, the St. Clair County court has sought to fund its operations on the backs of its poorest residents, in violation of the law. It first did so in violation of state law, operating a modern-day debtors’ prison that was invalidated in 2019 by the Missouri Supreme Court. It now does so in violation of federal law, ordering Social Security recipients—some of society’s most vulnerable people—to hand over their benefits to pay for a host of exorbitant fines, fees, court costs, and jail debt,” said Jon Taylor, Principal at Gupta Wessler PLLC. “This lawsuit seeks to put a stop to that practice. Congress made clear that Social Security benefits are protected and beyond the reach of creditors, including state and local governments. We’re filing this lawsuit to vindicate the rights of Social Security recipients like Mr. Richey, so that they may use their protected benefits for the basic necessities of life—not to fund the operations of court systems that prey on them.”
“Mr. Richey’s case epitomizes the way people who are poor are treated by the criminal legal system in Missouri. Like thousands of Missourians, Mr. Richey is wholly reliant on Social Security benefits as his means to pay for necessities, like food, shelter, and medication. Unfortunately, however, Mr. Richey was forced to use these benefits to stay out of jail,” said Corrigan Lewis, Staff Attorney at ArchCity Defenders. “We hope to end this practice and ensure that statutorily protected benefits are not subjected to the greed inherent in the carceral system.”
ArchCity Defenders, a holistic legal advocacy organization founded in 2009 and based in St. Louis, has expanded its work to outstate Missouri in recent years.
Z Gorley, Communications Director, ArchCity Defenders