DENVER — The road to jail for Jared Thornburg started with a traffic ticket and a $165 fine.
The 29-year-old Westminster resident said he was unemployed and unable to pay, the fine grew, and he ended up spending 10 days in jail in May 2012 to settle the debt — a punishment the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado maintains violates U.S. and state constitutional provisions that forbid the imprisonment of people who are too poor to pay a court fine.
"What's real crappy about that is I was in the process of getting a job. I was supposed to be starting a day or two after I got arrested," Thornburg said. He added that he never started the job at Taco Bell he had lined up and was unemployed for a year.
Cases such as Thornburg's are common enough, according to research published late last year by the ACLU, that a Democratic state lawmaker is proposing a bill to address the issue. The measure would direct municipal courts to inform defendants that they have a right to show evidence of their inability to pay a fine. Courts "shall not imprison the defendant for his or her failure to pay," the bill says, but may lower or waive the fines, or order community service as payment.
The proposal would also require courts to notify defendants that they can ask for a waiver or a payment plan if they're unable to pay immediately. "It causes the courts to follow our constitutional provision of not putting poor people in prison because they can't pay a debt," said Thornton Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar.
Salazar's bill maintains a court's authority to jail someone or hold them in contempt if they have money but willfully refuse to pay a penalty.
But the Colorado Municipal League, a powerful nonprofit organization that lobbies on behalf of cities and counties, opposes the bill. Group officials say they understand what the measure is trying to address, but they're concerned it goes too far by putting the burden on courts to prove someone is willfully disobeying an order.
Meghan Storrie, who lobbies for the municipal group, said officials already try to avoid putting people in jail. "A lot of them a pretty adamant against jail time," she said, "because it's costly for municipalities, and it's usually kind of a last-ditch effort."
Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, the Democratic House leader, said she supports Salazar's bill and is confident about its chances to pass if he addresses the municipalities' concerns.
Salazar, for his part, is modifying the proposal before it goes to committee. He says his key goal is to keep financially struggling people from being locked up over relatively small — but for them unmanageable — fines.
Sometimes, the fines imposed are for minor violations, such as traffic infractions, possessing alcohol in public, or letting a property get overgrown with weeds.
State courts have collections investigators to establish payment plans for people who are unable to pay fines immediately, according to legislative analysts working on Salazar's bill. But municipal courts don't have uniform guidelines requiring payment plans, although judges there can establish plans for people unable to pay a fine, according to the analysts. No data was available on the number of payment plans in effect in municipal courts during the last year, the analysts said.
The ACLU's research focused mainly on three Denver metro-area municipalities — Westminster, Wheat Ridge and Northglenn. But most of the state's largest cities issue "pay or serve" warrants, meaning police are directed to collect a fine from an individual or jail them if they can't pay, the ACLU said.
Denver ended that practice on February 2012 "to foster an overall more positive approach to justice," according to an order by presiding county court Judge John Marcucci.
In Northglenn, there were at least 193 pay-or-serve warrants during an 18-month period ending in July 2012, the ACLU said. In Wheat Ridge, there were at least 190 such warrants during a six-month period ending in July 2013, according to the ACLU. The group was unable to obtain that data from Westminster, where Thornburg went to court.
Municipalities have varying standards for how much credit they give for each day in jail toward paying off a fine. But in Westminster, the practice has been for people to spend 10 days in jail regardless of the amount. In Thornburg's case, it was $306.25.
The city of Westminster does not dispute the details of Thornburg's case, which is also supported by court records. But city officials say the practice of 10-day jail sentences for failure to pay stopped in December 2012, months after his case. The city said in a statement that it is "implementing additional steps to ensure that all defendants understand their rights with regard to paying fines."
They're considering "clearly stating on the advisement and sentencing documents signed by defendants that they have the right to have the court review their circumstances if they are unable to pay." The city also said it has implemented a policy giving judges the option of allowing indigent defendants to pay a fine through community service.
Jason Rogers, a spokesman for Northglenn, said jail for failure to pay fines occurs only when "lawful court orders are being ignored."
Wheat Ridge said in a statement that it believes "it always has and is now protecting" the due-process rights of defendants.
"The City is carefully reviewing the points made by ACLU as well as the proposed legislation," the statement said, adding that they'll make any required changes as a result of the review or if the legislation passes.
For his part, Thornburg said he has found a job at a grocery store, where he just marked his one-year anniversary. He hopes Salazar's bill passes and said municipalities should be more understanding.
"They should work with us more," he said, "and communicate and have a thing called mercy."