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Feenstra v. Sigler

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

November 13, 2019

AMANDA FEENSTRA, SHARONICA CARTER, and LONNIE FEENSTRA, Plaintiffs,
v.
JARED SIGLER, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; JOHN GERKIN, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; CURTIS DELAPP, former Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; OKLAHOMA INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM, an Oklahoma State Agency; STATE OF OKLAHOMA ex rel. OKLAHOMA INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM; CRAIG SUTTER, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; and OKLAHOMA INDIGENT DEFENSE SYSTEM BOARD OF DIRECTORS, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          GREGORY K. FRIZZELL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the court on the Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10] of defendants Jared Sigler, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; John Gerkin, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; and Curtis DeLapp, former Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity. The court conducted a hearing on the motion on October 10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10, 2019. For the reasons discussed below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background and Procedural History

         Since at least Magna Carta in 1215, Anglo-American law has reflected a deeply rooted concern regarding the imposition of penal fines. See generally Timbs v. Indiana, - U.S. -, 139 S.Ct. 682 (2019) (tracing the history of the prohibition against excessive fines). Although painted against the backdrop of that jurisprudence, this motion requires the court to contend only with a single, discrete issue: the procedures employed by three judges of Washington County, Oklahoma with regard to fines, fees, and costs arising from criminal charges filed against the three individual plaintiffs-Amanda Feenstra, Sharonica Carter, and Lonnie Feenstra.

         Plaintiffs generally allege that defendants Jared Sigler, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; John Gerkin, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity; Curtis DeLapp, former Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity (collectively, “Judicial Defendants”) “have systemically failed to conduct an inquiry into criminal defendants' ability to pay either before imposing those fines and fees at sentencing, or before sanctioning indigent defendants for nonpayment-including by incarceration.” [Doc. 3-1, ¶ 10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10]. Plaintiffs initiated this case in the District Court in and for Washington County, asserting seven (7) separate claims: (1) failure to provide notice and opportunity to be heard prior to arrest and detention in violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Sigler; (2) punishment solely on the basis of poverty in violation of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Sigler and DeLapp; (3) denial of the right to counsel in violation of the assistance of counsel clause of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the four Oklahoma Indigent Defense System defendants; (4) denial of due process in violation of article 2, § 7 of the Oklahoma Constitution against Sigler and DeLapp; (5) failure to provide relief due to poverty and disability in violation of Okla. Stat., tit. 22, ch. 18, Rule 8.5 against Sigler and DeLapp; (6) failure to conduct ability to pay hearings prior to incarceration for nonpayment in violation of Okla. Stat., tit. 22, ch. 18, Rule 8.4 against Sigler and DeLapp; and (7) failure to conduct ability to pay hearings at judgment and sentencing in violation of Okla. Stat., tit. 22, ch. 18, Rule 8.1 against DeLapp, Sigler, and defendant John Gerkin, Special Judge of the District Court of Washington County, in his official capacity. Defendants the State of Oklahoma ex rel. Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; the State of Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; Craig Sutter, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System; and the State of Oklahoma Indigent Defense System Board of Directors (collectively, “OIDS Defendants”) removed the case to this court on May 3, 2019 pursuant to the court's federal question jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1331. [Doc. 3]. The Judicial Defendants then filed their motion to dismiss, seeking dismissal of all claims asserted against them.[1] [Doc. 10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10');">10]. The motion is ripe for the court's decision.

         II. Allegations of the Complaint[2]

         The Complaint's factual allegations arise from three separate, but related, courses of conduct: (1) the imposition of fines, fees, and costs at sentencing, (2) appearances at the “cost docket, ” and (3) incarceration for failure to pay outstanding fines, fees, and costs.

         First, with respect to sentencing, plaintiffs allege that, in Washington County, no ability-to-pay inquiry is made as to a criminal defendant's ability to pay fines, fees, and costs at the time of sentencing as required by Oklahoma Rule of Criminal Procedure Rule 8.1. [Doc. 3-1, ¶ 36]. Instead, plaintiffs allege that, after sentencing, while setting up a payment plan as to those fines and fees already imposed, Washington County criminal defendants are required to complete a “Rule 8” Form. [Id.]; see also [id. ¶ 14]. The form contains no questions about the defendants' income, expenses, or ability to pay. [Id. ¶ 14].

         Second, after sentencing, criminal defendants in Washington County are ordered to appear at the “cost docket, ” in which a judge is supposed to oversee the payment of fines, fees, and costs in a manner consistent with the federal and Oklahoma Constitutions, as well as the governing rules of the court. [Id. ¶ 15]. Special Judge Sigler has overseen the cost docket in Washington County for several years, and currently presides over the docket. [Id. ¶¶ 15, 41]. At the cost docket, debtors do not receive any “meaningful inquiry” into their ability to pay. [Id. ¶ 41]. Instead, requests to reduce monthly payments are often denied, and Special Judge Sigler allegedly instructs debtors to make same-day payments or be sent to jail. [Id. ¶ 15].

         Third, at the “cost docket, ” Special Judge Sigler allegedly uses a form document, entitled “Order Remanding Defendant to Jail for Failure to Pay Fines and Costs, ” that contains a predetermined conclusion that “the Defendant has willfully refused or neglected to pay the amounts . . . previously ordered.” [Id. ¶ 41]. Moreover, allegedly, the space for “findings of fact[] and conclusions of law” is typically left blank “(or contains, at most, a note about the date of a missed or upcoming court appearance or the total amount owed).” [Id.].

         The Complaint also includes specific factual allegations as to each plaintiff, which are set forth below:

         Allegations as to Amanda Feenstra

         Amanda Feenstra is a thirty-three-year-old resident of Claremore, Oklahoma. [Id. ¶ 20]. In April 2015, Feenstra pleaded guilty to false personation, forgery, identity theft, and conspiracy charges in Washington County. Former Judge DeLapp ordered Feenstra to pay over $3, 000 in fines, fees, and costs, without conducting an inquiry into her ability to pay. [Id.]. At the time, Feenstra was unemployed and suffering from a drug addiction. At sentencing, Feenstra advised former Judge DeLapp that she would be unable to make the payments, either immediately or upon her release from jail. [Id. ¶ 38]. Former Judge DeLapp did not suspend or vacate her payments, but informed her that she could work one month per day at the courthouse to satisfy her obligations. [Id.].

         On February 2, 2017, less than two weeks after her release from prison, Special Judge Sigler ordered Feenstra to pay $50 per month towards her fines, fees, and costs. Special Judge Sigler allegedly never asked Feenstra about her salary, bills, and expenses, and refused to honor former Judge DeLapp's statement at sentencing that she could work one month per day at the courthouse to satisfy her obligations. [Id. ¶ 43]. Feenstra informed Special Judge Sigler of her indigency and inability to make her payments. [Id.].

         On May 7, 2018, Special Sigler issued a warrant for Feenstra's arrest based on Feenstra's failure to make monthly payments. Feenstra alleges that, prior to the issuance of the warrant, Special Judge Sigler failed to provide Feenstra “an opportunity to be heard as to the refusal or neglect to pay the installment when due” as required by Okla. Stat. tit. 22, ch. 18, R. 8.4, or inquire into her ability to pay. [Id. ¶ 47]. In the second week of May 2018, during a call with the Washington County Court Clerk to confirm her next cost docket appearance, Feenstra was informed by the Court Clerk that she had mixed up her dates, missed the cost docket, and was therefore subject to an active warrant for her arrest. [Id. ¶ 48]. Feenstra was told that if she came to the courthouse to reschedule her appearance, the warrant would be recalled. Feenstra immediately went to the courthouse and met with Special Judge Sigler in his chambers. Sigler said that she owed an additional $40 and refused to reschedule the appearance until after the following day's arraignment docket. [Id.].

         While Feenstra was meeting with Special Judge Sigler, the Court Clerk's office notified police that Feenstra was at the courthouse and she was arrested. Feenstra did not receive the opportunity to be heard prior to her incarceration pursuant to Rule 8.4, and spent the night in jail. [Id.]. The following day, Special Judge Sigler informed Feenstra that she could either pay $330 immediately or remain in jail. Plaintiff Lonnie Feenstra was forced to borrow $330 in order to make the payment. [Id.].

         Feenstra currently owes almost $11, 800.00 in court-ordered fines, fees, and costs, more than double the fines and fees she was assessed in 2015.[3] [Id. ¶ 23]. Feenstra alleges that she is indigent and unable to make her payments. [Id. ¶ 21].

         Allegations as to Sharonica Carter

         Sharonica Carter is a twenty-three-year-old resident of Tulsa, Oklahoma. [Id.24]. In September of 2011, when she was sixteen, Carter pleaded no contest to a youthful offender charge in Washington County and was sentenced by former Judge DeLapp to pay over $2, 700 in fines, fees, and costs. [Id.]. Carter spent the next two years in a juvenile-correctional facility and was released in October 2013. Although Carter was unemployed, former Judge DeLapp ordered Carter to pay $75 per month toward her fines, fees, and costs. Neither at sentencing nor at her release did DeLapp inquire into Carter's ability to pay. [Id.].

         In January 2014, former Judge DeLapp ordered Carter to be incarcerated for failure to make her monthly court-ordered payment of $75. [Id. ¶ 50]. At that time, Carter was unemployed. The next month, in February 2014, Carter missed her appearance before former Judge DeLapp “because she had no money to make her monthly payment and was afraid she would be sent to jail again.” [Id.]. former Judge DeLapp issued an order for her arrest without conducting an ability-to-pay inquiry. [Id.].

         In September 2018, Carter asked Special Judge Sigler to defer or reduce her monthly payment of $75 due to her inability to pay. [Id. ¶ 44]. Special Judge Sigler allegedly refused and told Carter that she had to “find” $50 before 3:00 p.m. that day or be incarcerated. [Id.]. Carter borrowed the money in order to avoid jail. [Id.]. On another occasion, Carter told the Court Clerk that she could afford to pay $25 per month, but her monthly payment of $75 was not reduced. [Id.].

         Carter alleges that she currently owes $5, 000, almost double the fines and fees originally assessed against her. [Id. ¶ 26]. Carter alleges that she is indigent, currently unemployed, and has had trouble finding steady employment due to her criminal history. [Id. ¶¶ 25-26].

         Allegations as to Lonnie Feenstra

         Lonnie Feenstra is a thirty-six-year old resident of Claremore, Oklahoma and the husband of plaintiff Amanda Feenstra. [Id. ¶ 27]. From February to April 2016, Feenstra spent 61 days in jail on a felony charge. [Id. ¶ 40]. Feenstra alleges that his OIDS attorney advised him that the felony charge would be dismissed if he agreed to pay $200 in transportation costs and $150 fine. However, upon dismissal of the felony charge, retired Special Judge Gerkin transferred over $2, 500 in incarceration and court fees from the dismissed felony charge to an “unrelated misdemeanor traffic offense to which [Feenstra] had pleaded guilty before Defendant Gerkin in April 2016.” [Id.]. Retired Special Judge Gerkin allegedly did not conduct an inquiry into Feenstra's ability to pay. [Id.].

         In May 2018, Special Judge Sigler ordered Feenstra to pay $75 per month toward the fines, fees, and costs. [Id. ¶ 45]. Feenstra informed Sigler that he could not afford to make the payments due to his physical disability, but Sigler did not reduce or suspend the monthly payments. [Id.]. However, in November 2018, Special Judge Sigler lowered the minimum monthly payments to $50 per month. [Id.]. Nevertheless, Feenstra maintains that he is unable to afford the court-ordered payments. [Id.]. Feenstra alleges that he has physical and psychological disabilities which prevent him from working, and is under the care of multiple physicians and needs several daily medications. [Id. ¶ 28]. Feenstra asserts that he currently owes more than $2, 500 in outstanding fines and fees. [Id.].

         III. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 requires a pleading to contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The court accepts as true all factual allegations, but the tenet is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         IV. ...


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