Groups sue Black Hawk County Sheriff over jail fee policy

WATERLOO — The groups Public Justice and the ACLU of Iowa are suing Black Hawk County and the Sheriff on behalf of a Waterloo woman and others who have been forced to sign agreements requiring them to pay fees before being released from jail.

ACLU attorney Rita Bettis Austen says her client didn’t know a judge could rule on her ability to pay the fees. “These agreements called Confessions of Judgment, result in people waving important legal protections that they would have and it allows the sheriff to garnish their wages without any right to a day in court,” she says. Bettis Austen says judges in many cases will waive the fees based on a person’s ability to pay. She says Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson is spending the fees to fund a shooting range for the enjoyment of department employees and families, including rentals of ice cream and cotton candy machines, and laser tag.

Public Justice Attorney Charles Moore says about two-thirds of counties charge fees to inmates.”In Iowa, the ability to charge these pay to state fees is discretionary. Some counties choose to charge these fees and others do not because they see how unfair it is,” Moore says. The sheriff in Black Hawk County has decided to go ahead and charge these fees at amongst the highest rates in the state 70 dollars per day.”

He says the Sheriff sets the level of fees and controls everything without any check on that authority. “In this case the sheriff pockets 300-thousand dollars a year without any court ever having reviewed the petitions,” he says. Moore says some of the money collected should not pay for things that aren’t related to jail costs. “I think that the statute is clear that it’s meant to reimburse for actual expenses that are at the jail and that’s not what’s being done here,” Moore says. Both attorneys say they are not trying to get the fees system overturned, they simply want the processed to be used fairly.

Black Hawk County Sheriff Tony Thompson issued a statement that says signing the agreements on release is optional, not required. He says the amount is appropriate to help cover costs for room and board.