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Eastpointe judge blocked from jailing woman in dog case

Ed White
Associated Press

The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging an Eastpointe judge known for sending poor people to jail if they can’t immediately pay fines, saying the “pay or stay” policy is illegal and creating a debtors’ prison.

A higher court stepped in to stop Judge Carl Gerds from sentencing a single mother Wednesday who can’t afford to pay a $455 fine for failing to have her dogs licensed.

The ACLU of Michigan said Donna Anderson is justified in fearing she would be ordered to jail, noting Gerds sentenced a man to 30 days in jail in June after he couldn’t afford to pay a smaller jaywalking fine.

Michael Steinberg, legal director of the ACLU of Michigan, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled years ago such practices were unconstitutional.

“We’re not saying there shouldn’t be punishment,” Steinberg told The Associated Press. “What we’re saying is you cannot send someone to jail because they’re too poor to pay a fine. Some sort of alternative sentence should be fashioned — community service or an extended payment schedule.”

Gerds, a judge since 2009, won’t comment on pending cases, Eastpointe court administrator Karen Haydett said Wednesday.

The ACLU asked a higher court to step in, requesting Macomb County Judge James Maceroni order Gerds to stop sending anyone to jail if they can’t pay. Maceroni ordered a timeout in Anderson’s case, but he hasn’t taken any broader action.

In a complaint filed July 9 on behalf of Anderson, the ACLU said Gerds has repeatedly told people they must immediately pay fines or be locked up.

In June, Stephane Earl-Rico Milton was ordered to pay $334 for failing to use a crosswalk — jaywalking — or go to jail for 30 days. He didn’t have the money, and he spent five days in jail until a higher court released him pending an appeal.

Ryan Rockett was sent to jail in January because he couldn’t immediately pay $1,500 for driving without insurance and a valid license.

“Is it pay or stay?” asked Rockett, who qualified for food stamps and Medicaid.

“Yes, sir,” Gerds replied, according to a transcript from the hearing.

The sentence was later overturned by Macomb County Judge Mary Chrzanowski, who sent the case back to Gerds. He dropped the fine and instead sentenced Rockett to 93 days in jail.

Rockett is free while that punishment is being appealed but already has spent 18 days behind bars.