In 2014, the Colorado Legislature passed House Bill 14-1061 by a wide margin. This bill “prohibited courts from issuing arrest warrants for failure to pay fines” (also known as an “outstanding judgement warrant”). The idea behind House Bill 14-1061 was to stop courts from jailing defendants for failing to pay their fines without first having “a hearing on the issue of ability to pay, and a finding on the record of willful failure to pay prior to incarceration.”
Up until this point, courts were free to use “failure to pay” warrants to apprehend defendants for failing to pay their fines. The problem, though, was that courts were not providing proof that defendants were willfully eluding paying their fines at the time they issued the warrants for their arrests. Failing to do so was at times creating what’s known as a debtors’ prison—jailing individuals simply for their inability to pay.
According to the ACLU of Colorado, “District and county courts have followed the law, but municipal courts have found a loophole to continue jailing impoverished debtors.”1 The loophole the ACLU of Colorado is referring to has to do with payment plans. Some municipal courts have made it mandatory for defendants to return to court to pay their payment installments, and if a court appearance is missed, a “failure to appear” warrant is issued. The ACLU of Colorado calls these court appearances “shams.”2
Greeley Municipal Court seems to be one of the municipal courts making use of this loophole. Defendants who choose to make payments must return to the municipal court building to pay their first three payments. These payment dates are all two weeks apart from each other, so defendants are ordered to return to court with their first payment two weeks after their initial court hearing. If they miss any of these court dates a warrant is issued for their arrest.
The purpose is still the same as it was with “failure to pay” warrants: to punish people for failing to pay without having to hold another hearing to verify defendants are willfully refusing to pay. Of course, holding such hearings would take more time and resources and would probably often end with the case stretching out even longer. But the argument that this time and use of resources would be greater than the time and resources spent by the Greeley Police Department in tracking these individuals down and the time and resources spent by the Weld County Jail to house them seems like it could be lacking merit (see “Debtors’ Prisons”). The bottom line is that if Greeley Municipal Court wants to avoid unconstitutionally locking up citizens for their meager financial conditions, then it would be wise to cease these “shams.”