The lawsuit, filed October 10 in US District Court of the Eastern District of Missouri against the City of Arnold, says officials jailed Qiana Williams five times between 2012 and 2014 because she did not have the money to pay her traffic tickets.
The Arch City Defenders has filed multiple lawsuits against municipalities over so-called debtors’ prisons, including one against nearby Jennings, Missouri on behalf of 2,000 victims that resulted in a $4.7 million settlement.
DebtorsPrisons.com sought comment from the City of Arnold municipal court, which has not yet responded. However, Arnold’s city administrator, Brian Richison, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch, “We don’t agree with Ms. Williams’ version of events but we certainly will send it to our insurance company …”
The case stems from a September 2008 traffic stop after Qiana dropped off a friend at work. She was driving the friend’s car to get inspected when she was pulled over for expired license plates, according to the complaint.
Stopped in Arnold, Qiana, who lives in St. Louis, was given citations for expired plates, driving an unregistered vehicle and driving without a license, the complaint said.
The lawsuit says the Arnold Municipal Court later issued an arrest warrant for Qiana after she failed to show up for a court date. She later said couldn’t afford to pay the fines and had no way of getting to court because of the lack of any public transportation from Arnold to St. Louis, according to Arch City attorneys.
In 2010, however, she was pulled over and given a new court date. This time, she attended — only to find the court was closed without notice, and she said she never received notice of a new date.
For Qiana, the closed hearing set in motion a “years-long cycle” of arrests and stays in jail — all stemming from minor traffic tickets, according to the lawsuit.
The complaint states Qiana said she told jail officials repeatedly about her severe allergy to food preservatives, but officials still only offered frozen meals.
When she was released, Qiana found herself in sub-zero temperatures with no jacket, and jail officials declined to let her make a call for someone to pick her up, the complaint states. The men with whom she was released carried her a few blocks away to a vacant house, where “she spent the rest of the night shivering, exhausted and frightened,” Qiana’s attorneys wrote.
Qiana also found herself in a jail cell where the walls were covered in blood and feces just occupied by an inmate who had hepatitis had occupied the cell, but nobody bothered to clean it, the complaint states.
The lawsuit, which includes a host of other disturbing allegations about jail conditions, overall accuses Arnold of violating Qiana’s constitutional rights by jailing her over minor traffic violations, depriving her of food and harassing her in jail.
“The City of Arnold caged Ms. Williams for a total of approximately 27 days because Ms. Williams was too poor to pay fines and cash bonds associated with alleged municipal traffic violations,” the complaint states.
The civil rights group says Qiana’s “deplorable treatment” reflects a broader issue of Arnold’s using its municipal court and jail as a “significant” source of revenue. From 2012 to 2014, the city’s municipal court collected more than $3.2 million, according to Arch City.
As a result, the lawsuit said the city has an incentive to operate the court and the jail in a way that maximizes revenues rather than justice.”