A federal judge in Alabama will hear arguments Thursday over a debt collection lawsuit that accuses the city of Montgomery, Ala. of jailing some residents for not paying their debts.

The suit, brought by four indigent city residents, claims the city did not provide proper counsel or ask if they had the means to pay the debts, which accrued from fines for driving without licenses or insurance. It was not immediately clear if the defendants spent any time in jail, despite the claims in the suit.

The defendants are seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the city from collecting their fines. U.S. District Judge Mark Fuller is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday over the motion.

The city has denied the allegations in the suit. City officials argued in a filing last week that the defendants were given the opportunity to meet with a public defender, that those who have not paid off their debts are scheduled for compliance hearings and that the city's conduct did not violate federal law, according to the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.

The four defendants named in the lawsuit owed thousands of dollars in fines to the city.

Sharnalle Mitchell, 23, said in a deposition that she was unable to meet monthly payments on a $4,500 debt, payments she said included a $40 fee on top of what she owed to JCS Inc., a Montgomery-based company contracted by the city to collect debts. She said she was arrested on Jan. 26 and brought to court, where, she added, she tried to explain that she had two small children and was unable to pay the debt.

Mitchell said she was transported to jail and told she could either pay the city $2,907 or serve 58 days.
The lawsuit alleges that if a private company contracted to collect the debts fails to put the person on probation, the city orders the defendant to pay or incarcerates them in jail "until their debt is extinguished at a rate of $50 a day."

Attorneys for the city, in an earlier response to the initial complaint, said that the defendants were "guilty of negligence, wantonness, recklessness and intentional acts or criminal acts which proximately caused or contributed to the injuries or damages (they) claim."

Collections & Credit Risk will update this story as more information becomes available.

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