Judge Marvin Wiggins’ courtroom was packed on a September morning. The docket listed hundreds of offenders who owed fines or fees for a wide variety of crimes – hunting after dark, assault, drug possession and passing bad checks among them.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen,” began Wiggins, a circuit judge here in rural Alabama since 1999. “For your consideration, there’s a blood drive outside,” he continued, according to a recording of the hearing. “If you don’t have any money, go out there and give blood and bring in a receipt indicating you gave blood.”
For those who had no money or did not want to give blood, the judge concluded: “The sheriff has enough handcuffs.”
Efforts by courts and local governments to generate revenue by imposing fines for minor offenses, particularly from poor and working-class people, have attracted widespread attention and condemnation in recent months. But legal and health experts said they could not think of another modern example of a court all but ordering offenders to give blood in lieu of payment, or face jail time. They all agreed it was improper.
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“What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways,” said Arthur Caplan, a professor of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center, part of New York University. “You’re basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn’t benefit them and isn’t protecting the public health.”
Reached by phone, Wiggins said: “I cannot speak with you.”
The dozens of offenders who showed up that day, old and young, filed out of the Perry County Courthouse and waited their turn at a mobile blood bank parked in the street. They were told to bring a receipt to the clerk showing they had given a pint of blood, and in return they would receive a $100 credit toward their fines – and be allowed to go free.
Carl Crocker, who was among those who owed money to the court, recounted seeing one older man pass out after his blood was taken. Another witness, Traci Green, said one young man became so angry about the choice he was given that he was taken out of the courtroom.
James M. Barnes Jr., a lawyer who was in the courtroom that morning, said, “I thought it was really unusual.
“I don’t know whether it’s legal or not. I don’t know if that violates half the Constitution,” he said.
What happened is wrong in about 3,000 ways. You’re basically sentencing someone to an invasive procedure that doesn’t benefit them and isn’t protecting the public health.
Arthur Caplan, professor of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center
On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed an ethics complaint against Wiggins, saying he had committed “a violation of bodily integrity.” The group also objected to the hearing beyond the matter of blood collection, calling the entire proceeding unconstitutional.
Payment-due hearings like this one are part of a new initiative by Alabama’s struggling courts to raise money by aggressively pursuing outstanding fines, restitution, court costs and lawyer fees. Many of those whose payments are sought in these hearings have been found at one point to be indigent, yet their financial situations often are not considered when they are summoned for outstanding payments.
Several people who were present at the hearing Sept. 17 said they were unsure whether they were being ordered to pay the entire amount due or their usual monthly payment, which many had been paying on time, often for offenses dating back a decade or more.
Green, 43, who owes thousands of dollars, related to two marijuana-related convictions – one from 1998 – said he offered to pay as much as he could but was led to believe he had to give blood anyway.
“He told us we got to go there and give some blood or we go to jail,” Green said. He said that he had willingly given blood before, but like others there on that day, did not want to be compelled to do so.
It’s just wrong for them to utilize people who are in the court system and essentially extort blood out of you because you owe traffic tickets, misdemeanors, felonies, whatever you’re there for.
Carl Crocker, who owes money to the Perry County, Ala., court
Ordering defendants to give blood used to be more commonplace, particularly during wartime, according to “Flesh and Blood,” a history of blood transfusion and organ transplantation by Susan Lederer, a professor of medical history at Yale University.
In the mid-20th century, judges in several places around the country, including Honolulu after the Pearl Harbor attack, ordered people convicted of traffic violations to give blood or offered blood donations as an alternative to a fine. More commonly, prisoners would receive cash incentives or reduced sentences for giving blood. (As late as 2008, a judge in Broward County, Fla., offered traffic offenders the choice of a fine, community service or a blood donation.)
But fears about the spread of hepatitis led to a broad move away from compensation for blood in the 1970s and to what has become a nearly all-volunteer blood donation system. While it is not illegal to pay someone for blood, the Food and Drug Administration does require that blood collected in exchange for compensation be labeled “paid,” and hospitals generally refuse such blood for transfusions.
Crocker, 41, who made the recordings of Wiggins, also recorded the employees of the mobile blood bank, who seemed fully aware of the sentence-reduction arrangement. Crocker said he grew even more uncomfortable later, after he recognized the blood bank, LifeSouth Community Blood Centers, which had recently lost a $4 million judgment for an HIV-tainted blood transfusion.
“It’s just wrong for them to utilize people who are in the court system and essentially extort blood out of you because you owe traffic tickets, misdemeanors, felonies, whatever you’re there for,” Crocker said.
Jill Evans, a vice president for LifeSouth, which is based in Gainesville, Fla., said the employee who set up the blood drive with the courthouse had acted improperly because the employee understood ahead of time that the judge would reduce community service obligations for those willing to donate, a violation of company policy.
“We appreciate the judge’s attempt to support the community’s blood needs,” Evans said. “However, LifeSouth prohibits blood donations from being considered as community service because it is potentially an unacceptable incentive for a volunteer donor.”
Evans said that after receiving a complaint, LifeSouth quarantined and tested the blood, tried to contact all the donors and eventually discarded nearly all of the blood units collected.
The record at the county jail shows that no one was taken into custody that day. The court clerk said in a brief interview that there had been no intention of jailing anyone; Crocker said this was because everyone decided that having blood taken was better than going to jail.
However, Sara Zampierin, a lawyer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said that in the handful of instances she reviewed of people who gave blood, none had received the $100 discount they had been promised.