The Ardmore Municipal Court Judge has recently come under fire for an alleged practice creating what has been referred to as a debtors prison.
Local criminal defense attorney Jason May said he allegedly witnessed Municipal Court Judge Julie Austin engage in the unconstitutional practice while sitting in on a municipal court hearing Tuesday, Sept. 3.
“I noticed that Judge Austin was essentially giving people fines and then telling them that they had to pay them before they could be released from jail — which you cannot do,” May said. “You’re required by law to give people a payment plan and let them out so that they can make their payments.”
Ardmore City Manager J.D. Spohn, who oversees the municipal court, said he was not aware of any violations and deferred any further comment to Judge Austin. “I am not aware of our Judge violating any laws and I don’t believe that she would,” Spohn said in a text message.
Multiple attempts were made to reach Austin, but were unsuccessful.
May said he captured the hearing on a phone recording and emailed the video to various people. The video was eventually received by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington D.C.
In the recording, Judge Austin can be heard telling one individual “that’s what you have to pay to be released, otherwise you’ll have to sit in jail,” and another “I’m not releasing you without payment”.
“I had heard rumors that she was doing that but that was the first time I had personally seen it,” May said. “I know there were four or five people that day and she did it to all of them. It seemed like a pretty wide spread problem.”
The Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection addressed a letter to Judge Austin in September concerning the situation.
The letter began by stating, “it has recently come to our attention that you have a practice of detaining individuals who plead guilty to municipal offenses in jail for several days unless they are able to pay a court-imposed fine. You do so without making an inquiry into whether these individuals are able to pay the fines.”
According to the ICAP, this practice violates the United States and Oklahoma Constitutions and Oklahoma Law. Various cases including, Tate v. Short, 401 U.S. 395 (1971), Elam v. Municipal Court of Oklahoma City (1988), and Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983) were cited in the letter as precedent establishing the practice as unconstitutional.
“While a person may be confined if he or she has the ability to pay but willfully refuses to do so, this may be determined only after notice is provided to the defendant and a hearing is conducted at which the court determines whether the person is able to pay,” the ICAP stated in the letter.
Such a hearing is required not only by the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions, but by Oklahoma Statutory law under Title 22. May said Judge Austin allegedly did not make an inquiry into the individuals’ ability to pay the fines.
“One of the people, while I was in there, she actually told the judge that she was on disability and that she couldn’t pay it,” May said. “She asked for a payment plan and the judge told her no.”
In the letter, the ICAP requested that Judge Austin cease the practice immediately, stating that further legal options will be considered if the practice continues.
“I talked to them and basically their goal and my goal is to get them to stop what they’re doing,” May said. “No one really wants to file suit against the city, but we just wanted to make sure that they were put on notice so that if they don’t stop, then we will take action.”