Is it legal to tell defendants to donate blood or go to jail?

An Alabama judge allegedly told defendants who could not afford bail that they would receive a 'discount' and avoid imprisonment if they donated blood, according to an ethics complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has accused Alabama judge Marvin Wiggins of forcing indigent defendants to choose between jail time and donating blood.

The SPLC alleges that Judge Wiggins violated judicial ethics when he told the packed courtroom in Perry County, assembled for hearings on outstanding court fees and fines, that they could step outside to a blood donation station and bring him back the receipt if they wished to avoid prison.

In a recording taken from the September 17 hearing, Wiggins can be heard saying,

There’s a blood drive today and if you don’t have any money and you don’t want to go to jail, as an option to pay it, you can give blood today. If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood. Consider that as a discount rather than putting you in jail.... the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money.

Defendants had committed a variety of crimes, from hunting after dark to assault, according to The New York Times. The SPLC maintains that most had been found indigent, and spent years, in some cases, paying off fees for services such as court-appointed counsel. For many, however, thousands of dollars remained unpaid. 

Staff attorney Sara Zampierin explained that judges are forbidden by law from jailing people who cannot afford a court-appointed lawyer.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint with Alabama's Judicial Inquiry Commission on Monday. The complaint says that “Jail is appropriate only when an individual willfully violates an order to pay despite having the resources to do so.” 

“People who couldn't pay their court debt with cash literally paid with their blood," Ms. Zampierin told Reuters Tuesday. "I've never seen anything like this. It's a total disregard not only for judicial ethics, but of the Constitution.”

Zampierin says the court did not give defendants sufficient notice that their fees would have to be paid by September 17.

Moreover, many were confused by Wiggins’s "deal": did they owe a monthly payment, or the full sum? Would they actually receive a "discount," or simply a reprieve from jail that day?

SPLC alleges the latter. The New York Times reports that defendants were told they could exchange proof of donating blood for a $100 discount, but Zampierin says no records of such a discount were ever made.

Giving blood proved to be a popular choice on September 17 – no one was arrested. 

The LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, which has since put defendants’ blood in quarantine while it is being investigated, received blood from 54 people. 

“I thought everybody was joking,” one LifeSouth worker comments on the recording when told that the donations were payment for court fees. 

Wiggins, who has not commented on the accusations, faces reprimand or removal if the Commission finds him guilty of an ethics violation.

However, it has not been so long since Americans did not bat an eye at non-voluntary blood donations.

The New York Times cites Yale Professor Susan Lederer’s 2008 medical history "Flesh and Blood," where she writes that World War II-era traffic violators were given a choice between fines and blood.

More recently, a similar choice between fine, blood donation, or community service was offered by a Florida judge in 2008, the Times reports.

Times have changed, and NYU medical ethics professor Arthur L. Caplan told the Times that “What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways.”

But activists and lawyers are particularly attuned to Wiggins’ case because it appears to fit a worrying trend of courts aggressively fining those accused of minor crimes in order to fill local governments’ coffers. Some such practices are constitutional, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in April. But the Commission will not have to decide whether Wiggins’ "jail or blood" deal was, as well.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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