Kyle Dewitt says the last thing he expected when he went fishing in Ionia County in May was to wind up in jail.
But that’s what happened after Ionia District Judge Raymond Voet sentenced the unemployed 19-year-old from Ionia on Tuesday to three days in jail because he said he couldn’t afford a $215 ticket for catching a smallmouth bass out of season.
Dewitt is one of five Michigan residents whom the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is holding up as victims of pay or stay — the practice of some judges to lock up misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford to pay their fines.
“Long thought to be a relic of the 19th Century, debtors’ prisons are still alive and well in Michigan,” state ACLU Director Kary Moss said Thursday in announcing that it had intervened on behalf of Dewitt and the others to challenge their court sentences.
“Jailing our clients because they are poor is not only unconstitutional, it’s unconscionable and a shameful waste of resources,” Moss said.
In each case, Moss said, judges failed to conduct a hearing to determine whether the defendants were too poor to pay, whether they could pay in installments, or whether they should be sentenced instead to community service.
Voet wouldn’t comment on the sentence.
But Ionia County Prosecutor Ron Schafer, who attended Dewitt’s sentencing, disagreed with the ACLU.
“Mr. Dewitt is an able-bodied high school dropout who came up with the money to buy all of his fishing gear, tackle and his license. But now he can’t come up with $215 to pay his fine and the ACLU is intervening on his behalf?” Schafer said. “The general Michigan citizen is going to say, ‘Wait a minute. Is he someone who doesn’t have the means to pay, or chooses not to pay?’ ”
The ACLU said Thursday’s announcement resulted from a two-year investigation. During the past two weeks, it said, ACLU court watchers observed district and circuit court judges issue such sentences in Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, Montcalm, Muskegon, Kent and Ionia counties.
Dewitt, who insists he caught a legal rock bass, was ticketed by a state conservation officer.
“It was unfair,” Dewitt said. “The judge should have given me a grace period so I could make the payments. I could have come up with the money over a period of time.”
The ACLU said it plans to appeal Dewitt’s conviction.