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Nicole Funaro, Public Justice media relations strategist,

Veronica Lorson Fowler, ACLU of Iowa communications director,

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May 13, 2024

Waterloo, Iowa — Civil rights groups today filed a federal class action lawsuit to block the Black Hawk County sheriff's department from wrongly extracting money from people before being released from jail for room, board, and other fees. That money is being used to fund a shooting range for the enjoyment of department employees and families, including rentals of ice cream and cotton candy machines and laser tag.

The lawsuit was filed by Public Justice, the ACLU of Iowa, Fredrikson & Byron, PA, and Frerichs Law Office on behalf of Leticia (pronounced Luh-TEE-see-uh) Roberts and other individuals who have been forced to sign unconstitutional agreements before being released from jail.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, Eastern Division, and names Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson and Black Hawk County as defendants.

Sheriff Thompson and his office are requiring people, before they are released from jail, to sign a "confession of judgment." This document says they agree they owe and will pay expensive jail fees, including room and board at a rate of $70 per day plus other “administrative fees." Deputies also use the document to seize any money, even small amounts, that a person has on them when booked, with no way to get it returned.

"The sheriff’s department has imposed a high cost that should never be charged in the first place,” said Charles Moore, staff attorney for Public Justice’s Debtors’ Prison Project. “And the sheriff’s program has been incredibly profitable, pocketing roughly $300,000 a year by collecting these fees."

"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," Moore said.

This includes Roberts, a single mom of three in Waterloo. She is active in her church and community and relies on a fixed income. She said she signed the sheriff's office’s confession of judgment as she was released from jail because she thought she didn't have any choice. Two years later, she is still trying to pay off the $730 bill as she struggles to make ends meet.

"As a regular citizen, and being involved within the community, it makes me upset because a sheriff’s office is supposed to uphold the law, not bend it," Roberts said. "As a mom, it makes me upset because that is money that could be going towards feeding my children. But instead it was put towards things such as cotton candy and ice cream machines for 'fun.'"

Several counties in Iowa do not charge these fees because they recognize that they are unfair. And while other Iowa counties may also charge such fees, Black Hawk County stands out because it takes in significantly more than comparably sized counties.

And all counties are required by law to follow a process that gives a person being released from jail an opportunity to appear in court when the county attempts to collect the fees. In that hearing, they can raise defenses, including that they simply do not have the ability to pay.

Black Hawk County bypasses that legal process. The confessions of judgment are simply filed by the sheriff’s department and effectively rubber-stamped by a district court clerk. The sheriff then garnishes people’s wages without even asking a court for permission first.

“This practice needs to stop," said Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director. "The sheriff is getting people to sign away money they don’t have and give up rights they shouldn’t give up by asking them to do so when they have completed their sentence but before they are released from jail, when they are not yet free. In those circumstances, they have no bargaining power, no attorney, and zero meaningful understanding of what they are doing and what they are giving up," Bettis Austen said.

"The fact that the money is not even actually used to pay for the room and board or other jail costs that it’s supposedly being assessed for only makes it more outrageous. It’s profoundly unfair and wrong. We’re asking the court to block the sheriff from doing this moving forward and to force him to make things right for people who have already paid on these debts in the past," Bettis Austen said.

Roberts said she is participating in the suit because "I am a strong woman and I want to take a stand for what is right by saying this current practice by the sheriff’s department, of shaking down people for money as they get released from jail is wrong."

"It also makes me upset as a Black woman because I know that Black people do not always receive equality in the justice system, especially in Waterloo, Iowa, where Black people make up just 17 percent of the general population but around 50 percent of the county jail population," Roberts said.

"I take full accountability for the mistakes I have made along the way in life. And also why I am working on being the best version of myself as a mother and God-fearing woman to make my and my three amazing children’s lives better. However, that does not give the sheriff’s office an excuse to wrongly take money from me or anyone else," Roberts says.

Moore says that county jails in other states "often use similar tactics to squeeze money out of those being held. All over the country, there are statutes authorizing governments to collect fees for every day someone spends incarcerated, referred to as ‘pay-to-stay.’ These laws essentially allow the government to charge a rate as if it’s a hotel, despite people being held against their will, often in terrible conditions. These practices have received little scrutiny, yet they affect the emotional and financial well-being of those who have to pay them, forcing them to surrender funds that could go to paying for rent, food, gas, child support and any number of other basic needs. Generally, these laws are bad policy."

"But the situation in Black Hawk County is even worse," Moore says. "In Black Hawk County, the sheriff decides who owes money and how much they owe without any court ever reviewing those decisions. He acts as the judge, jury, and debt collector. It’s a classic conflict of interest."

The lawsuit asks that the court declare the practice of collecting money unconstitutional as a violation of due process in two ways: 1) by wrongly depriving someone of their property and 2) because it is a conflict of interest for the sheriff’s office to collect fees that it then can spend however it likes.

Bettis Austen said that the Black Hawk County sheriff is aware of the problems caused by current practices used to collect fees. The county board of supervisors has raised concerns about the way the funds are spent. Also, she said, "documents obtained by our firms show that the sheriff knows that the confessions of judgment result in many people owing money that a judge would never have made them pay, given their low incomes. He is aware the court has a process involving a judge to prevent taking money from people who can’t afford it."