Spat ends over Eastpointe judge’s pay-or-stay sentences

Ed White
Associated Press
Eastpointe District Judge Carl Gerds III.

Detroit — An Eastpointe judge accused of sending poor people to jail if they couldn’t immediately pay fines has agreed to end so-called pay-or-stay sentences after a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union.

An attorney for Judge Carl Gerds III signed the agreement, which was approved Tuesday by a Macomb County judge.

Gerds will consider a defendant’s job status, assets, basic living expenses and any other special circumstances.

The ACLU of Michigan says there’s no dispute that sending someone to jail without checking their ability to pay is unconstitutional. Nonetheless, it still has occurred in courts around the state.

The Michigan Supreme Court is considering a rule to strengthen the ban. A public comment period recently ended.

“Since we filed the lawsuit, Judge Gerds has said that he has abandoned the prior practice and now does ability-to-pay determinations,” said Michael Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU in Michigan. “We want to recognize that he has changed and we’d like to encourage other judges to follow in his footsteps.”

The ACLU represented Eastpointe resident Donna Anderson, who feared going to jail because she couldn’t afford to immediately pay $445 for failing to have her dogs licensed.

Gerds’ attorney, Tom Rombach, said the proposed rule being considered by the Supreme Court is part of the agreement adopted by the parties.

“We’re all on the same page. ... Judge Gerds is ahead of the curve here,” Rombach said Wednesday.

In November, Rombach said the judge may have made mistakes but now accepts payment plans.

Besides Anderson’s case, the ACLU presented evidence of many other pay-or-stay sentences in Gerds’ court.