PENDLETON — Angela Minthorn in 2017 spent 55 days in jail for owing little more than $1,000 to the Pendleton Municipal Court.

She sued the city in 2018 because of that incarceration. The city settled with her in April and agreed to pay out $130,000. The city also had to stop throwing poor people in jail for owing money.

Pendleton City Manager Robb Corbett referred questions about the case to city attorney Nancy Kerns. She said the city had no comment about the settlement but confirmed the city court adopted the new policies specifying how the court can collect money while banning the use of jail time for the indigent. The policy took effect April 18 at the direction of municipal judge. That action came the day after the city and Minthorn reached the deal.

“No person shall be incarcerated for the inability and lack of financial resources to pay financial obligations to the Court,” the policy states, “including fines, costs and restitution.” The city court now must consider a defendant’s ability to pay and appoint indigent defendants an attorney when they face jail.

The East Oregonian tried to reach Minthorn for comment. Attorney Kit Morgan of Pendleton with Legal Aid Services of Oregon represented Minthorn in the lawsuit. Morgan said his client did not want to talk about the case. Morgan, too, declined to comment.

But Morgan during a hearing Sept. 26 in federal court in Pendleton told Magistrate Judge Patricia Sullivan the city court did not appoint an attorney for Minthorn and never gave her the opportunity to present evidence about her inability to pay. The city court should have done both, he asserted.

Pendleton court clerk Marilyn Anderson told Sullivan the city contracts with attorneys to represent defendants at $350 per case, and the court tells the defendants they’re entitled to an attorney if any offense has the potential for a jail sentence.

Yet when Minthorn could not pay, the municipal judge ordered her to spend 60 days in jail. She ended up doing 55.

That judge was Tom Ditton. The Oregon Bar Association reprimanded Ditton in 2002 for failing to give a client an “appropriate accounting” of $4,850 for services, according to the Bar’s report. The Bar also suspended Ditton for two months in 2006 after he pocketed $1,000 from a client and did not deliver on services.

Ditton resigned from practicing law on Jan. 31, 2014, according to the Bar. That was a standard resignation — he was not facing any disciplinary proceedings or investigations. But he was no longer an attorney when he sent Minthorn to jail.

Kerns would not answer questions about who can be a city court judge, which the city council hires. She instead responded in an email with, “See applicable law,” without referring to any law.

Sullivan during the court hearing suggested Minthorn had the right to appeal Ditton’s sentence. Morgan challenged the notion, asking, “But how practical is that to her to exercise that appeal right after she’s been incarcerated at a hearing that she didn’t have an attorney appointed for her to represent her?”

Sullivan said she agreed with Morgan the court violated Minthorn’s rights, but she still wanted to know how to remedy the wrong.

Morgan replied they asked for money damages against the city and contended the municipal court has done this to others, setting up “a pattern and practice.” The settlement takes care of both concerns.

Minthorn received $79,534.10 for emotional harm out of the $130,000, according to the agreement, and Legal Aid Services received $45,000. Another $4,300 went to setting up a trust to administer the settlement payments. About $130 covered liens on the payments. And the city recouped $1,033 in Minthorn’s outstanding court fines.

Beyond ending any pattern and practice of jailing the poor, the deal required the city to train court employees on the new policy at least annually. Kerns reported the city did that when the policy became effective.

One more person may have to take that training — Monte Lundington, former prosecutor with the Umatilla County District Attorney’s Office. He swears in Tuesday as the new municipal court judge.

The settlement also requires Pendleton to report on the individuals the court holds in contempt for not paying fees and fines. The city has to provide Minthorn information on those cases every three months for the next year-and-half. Kerns reported the city has no plans to simply make that information public.

In addition to the municipal court adopting the new policies, the agreement calls for the city to adopt them as well. Kerns did not explain why the Pendleton City Council has not voted to adopt them.

Debtor’s jail has been a significant issue for the American Civil Liberties Union, which in 2018 published a lengthy report of the criminalization of private debt. According to the report, Oregon is among at least 44 states where civil court judges can jail debtors.

Sarah Armstrong is the communications director for the ACLU of Oregon. She said no one knows how prevalent it is for municipal courts in Oregon to send someone to jail for not paying fines, but those court costs put an excessive burden on the poor. She credited Minthorn for challenging the Pendleton Municipal Court.

“This lawsuit should put all of Oregon on notice to take a look at their practices on this,” Armstrong said.

She also said Pendleton residents should know what policies the court has and the court should strive to keep people out of the criminal justice system.

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