MARION, Ala., Oct. 20 (UPI) -- An Alabama judge is facing criticism for giving small-time offenders who couldn't afford their fines an ultimatum: Give blood or go to jail.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint against Circuit Judge Marvin Wiggins alleging he gave dozens of offenders sentenced to pay fines an unusual choice during a session Sept. 17, when a blood drive was taking place outside the courthouse.
"If you do not have any money and you don't want to go to jail, consider giving blood today and bring me your receipt back, or the sheriff has enough handcuffs for those who do not have money," the SPLC quoted Wiggins as saying.
Wiggins told the defendants to consider the blood donation "a discount rather than putting you in jail," but the SPLC said no actual "discount" was given on the fines. The center said donating blood did not reduce or wipe out the fines, it merely spared the offenders from being taken to jail.
"People who couldn't pay their court debt with cash literally paid with their blood," SPLC staff attorney Sara Zampierin. "This is a shocking disregard for not only judicial ethics but for the constitutional rights of defendants."
The SPLC complaint said the law does not allow for a person to be sentenced to jail for a debt they are unable to pay, but the judge failed to assess the ability of the defendants to pay before giving them the jail or blood choice.
"The case law is clear, and Alabama's statutes and rules are clear," Zampierin said. "Judges may not jail someone simply because they are poor and not able to pay. We're asking the Judicial Inquiry Commission to sanction Judge Wiggins for his conduct. And we're also calling on all courts in Alabama to re-examine their procedures to ensure that the poor are not being wrongfully threatened with jail."
Wiggins was previously reprimanded by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary in 2009 and ordered to work 90 days without pay after he failed to recuse himself from a voter fraud investigation involving three relatives.