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Iowa county jail’s fees helped fund cotton candy and laser tag for department, lawsuit says

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Black Hawk County courthouse and jail (PHOTO: Blackhawk County Sheriff's Office)

WATERLOO, Iowa (AP) — Civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit on Monday accusing an Iowa sheriff’s department of mishandling the collection of jail fees, some of which helped fund recreational expenses like laser tag and a cotton candy machine at a shooting range.

The lawsuit in federal court alleges that convicted prisoners were forced to sign a confession of judgment, agreeing to a balance and payment plan for administrative and room and board fees, before being released from the Black Hawk County jail in Waterloo, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of Des Moines.

Any cash carried by a person when they are booked is seized and applied toward the debt, the complaint said.

In a statement, the Black Hawk County Sheriff’s Office said inmates receive a statement of what they are owed when they are released, with the option to sign a confession of judgment outlining a payment plan. That is not required, according to the sheriff’s office.

Iowa allows a county sheriff to seek reimbursement for administrative fees and room and board, but the lawsuit alleges that the policies in Black Hawk County demand an individual signs away their legal protections without due process or the ability to consult their lawyer and are therefore unconstitutional.

“In those circumstances, they have no bargaining power, no attorney, zero meaningful advocacy of what they’re doing and what they’re giving up,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

ACLU of Iowa and Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Justice, along with other law firms, filed the suit on behalf of Leticia Roberts, who is described as having served two sentences after being charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Roberts was made to sign the agreements before getting back her possessions, and it was not notarized in her presence, according to the complaint.

The complaint alleges that Black Hawk County collected nearly $600,000 in jail fees from July 2021 to July 2023, roughly twice as much or more than other counties, because of the confession of judgment.

Iowa law specifies how 60% of the collected funds must be used — for expenses related to courthouse and jail infrastructure or medical expenses — and says the sheriff may make recommendations to the county board of supervisors or the two may work in tandem to develop a plan to use the funds.

Public records indicate members of the Black Hawk County Board of Supervisors questioned Sheriff Tony Thompson over the use of the unallocated 40% of collected fees for expenses at the shooting range, including “for a cotton candy machine, an ice cream machine and laser tag,” according to meeting minutes.

The records show Thompson told the board that those expenses were for the “entertainment of children too young for the training,” which was intended for staff and their families to learn more about gun safety.

Educational events on safety are “fulfilling, rewarding, and important to the total wellness and investment in a more inclusive, forthright and selflessly serving staff,” the department said in its statement.

“It also seems disingenuous to have these very programs be paid for by the hard-working taxpayers when they are the ones who are already victimized by the offender,” Thompson said.

Roberts, a 40-year-old mother of three children who owed $730 in jail fees, said she was rightly held accountable for her mistakes, but “shaking down people for money as they get released from jail is wrong.”

“I only signed it because I didn’t think I had a choice and it was contingent upon my release,” Roberts said. “It makes me upset because the sheriff’s office is supposed to uphold the law and not bend it.”

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