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Justice Department scolds Lexington for unconstitutionally jailing people

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ's Civil Rights Division (photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

The city of Lexington and its police department continue to face scrutiny from federal officials.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sent a letter to the Mississippi city and its law enforcement department accusing the two parties of locking up individuals for unpaid fines without first determining if the debtors are capable of paying them — a violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on wealth-based detention.

Last April, DOJ officials issued a statement explaining that before a person can be imprisoned for failure to pay a fine or fee, the Constitution requires courts to first determine whether the person lacks the resources to pay. In most circumstances, if a person cannot afford to pay, imprisonment for unpaid fines or fees is unlawful.

The DOJ alleged that the city of Lexington and the Lexington Police Department did the following in violation of the Constitution:

  • Require people who are arrested to pay down outstanding fines before they can be released from jail
  • Issue and arrest people on warrants for outstanding fines

“It’s time to bring an end to a two-tiered system of justice in our country in which a person’s income determines whether they walk free or whether they go to jail,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said. “Unjust enforcement of fines and fees is unlawful, and it traps people and their families in a vicious cycle of poverty and punishment. There is great urgency underlying the issues we have uncovered in Mississippi, and we stand ready to work with officials to end these harmful practices and ensure the civil and constitutional rights of Lexington residents are protected.”

The letter addressed to the city and law enforcement body follows an investigation opened by the DOJ back in November seeking to determine if there are systemic violations of the Constitution and federal law related to the use of force, stops, searches, and arrests in Lexington as well as discriminatory policing.

DOJ officials met with city and police leaders earlier on Thursday about their unlawful practice, which investigators identified during its ongoing investigation. Lexington leaders have since pledged to work with the department to ensure that the collection of fines and fees complies with legal requirements.

“One-third of Lexington’s residents live below the poverty line. The burden of unjust fines and fees undermines the goals of rehabilitation and erodes the community’s trust in the justice system,” U.S. Attorney Todd W. Gee for the Southern District of Mississippi said. “Each step we take towards fair and just policing rebuilds that trust. Lexington and LPD can take those steps now, while our investigation is ongoing.”

Individuals with relevant information are encouraged to contact the Justice Department via email at or by phone at (833)610-1232.

Citizens can report civil rights violations regarding this or other matters using the reporting portal of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, available here, by email at, or via a phone call by dialing (601)973-2825.

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