Last February, Dale City resident Dorothy Kosinski was handcuffed, fingerprinted, strip-searched, forced to dress in a baggy orange jumpsuit and locked in solitude behind a steel jail-house door.

For five days and nights, she cried and paced around the cell, eating only one boiled egg and taking an occasional sip of juice.

Her crime? Failing to pay a $780 court-ordered fee to the court-appointed lawyer who had represented her children in Kosinski's custody case against her husband, Joseph.

"I was humiliated," said Kosinski, who hadn't worked for more than a decade so she could care for her five children. "I just couldn't understand why I was in jail. I'm not a criminal. No crime had occurred. I was put in jail because I didn't have any money to pay a fee. I thought, 'This can't be happening, this is America.' I couldn't believe it."

Kosinski, 39, appealed, and a Prince William County Circuit Court judge ruled that she should never have been held in contempt of court and jailed because she couldn't pay the lawyer.

Kosinski now has filed a $10,000 claim with the state of Virginia for wrongful imprisonment.

A bill for her claim, introduced to the state Senate by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William), is under evaluation by the Senate Finance claims subcommittee, which is expected to decide within two weeks, said Colgan's aide, Mary Hamm. If approved, the measure then would undergo the normal process of all legislation.

Judges rarely hold people in contempt of court and then order them to jail for failing to pay fees to lawyers representing children in custody cases, according to court sources. Some Prince William lawyers described Kosinski's imprisonment as excessive while others said such action is within a judge's power.

The judge who sent Kosinski to jail, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court Judge Patrick Molinari, declined last week to comment on the case.

He had said contempt findings are used routinely by judges to enforce court orders, and defendants are given ample opportunity to pay court-ordered fees.

According to court records, Molinari ordered Kosinski taken into custody on Feb. 27, 1990, six months after he had told her to pay $780 to lawyer Susan K. Hafey, whom Molinari had appointed as guardian ad litem to Kosinski's five children.

Judges sometimes name attorneys for children in custody cases to protect their interests.

Kosinski's jailing climaxed a protracted court fight that began when she filed for custody of her children in 1988.

Kosinski, who was represented by a legal aid attorney because she could not afford to hire a lawyer, also sought child support.

After more than 18 months of hearings, Molinari, in August 1989, granted Joseph Kosinski, a structural engineer, custody of four of the children; Dorothy Kosinski was given custody of a daughter, and was ordered to pay Hafey's fee.

"I couldn't pay," Kosinski said. "I couldn't believe the judge would order me to pay when I said in court that I didn't have any money."

At the time, Kosinski, who is still receiving public assistance, lived with a Woodbridge family, supporting herself and her daughter on $294 in monthly Aid to Dependent Children payments and $152 in food stamps.

When she was taken into custody, according to Kosinski, her purse was searched. "The bailiff was looking in my purse. I said, 'Don't you realize what this is all about?' " she said. "Did they think I had $780 in my wallet and I just wasn't paying? I heard her say on the telephone that I only had $2 in my purse, like they were surprised."

Five days later, Kosinski was released after her parents paid her bail, which had been set at $780.

In March, Circuit Court Judge Percy Thornton ruled in Kosinski's appeal of the case that there had been no contempt, and ordered the bond returned, court records show. The state later paid Hafey's fee. Thornton was unavailable for comment.

Hafey said she believed at the time that Kosinski could pay the fee because her family had offered in court to help her.

During the six months that Molinari gave Kosinski to pay the money, Hafey said, Kosinski didn't contact her to make any arrangements for payment.

The judge, according to records, gave her three extensions to pay or show why she should not be held in contempt.

During a hearing three months after she was ordered to pay the fee, Kosinski said, she told the judge she had been unable to find work because of injuries she suffered in an automobile accident. Kosinski said she also suffers from Crohn's disease, an affliction of the intestines that results in chronic stomach upset and digestive problems.

"Constitutionally you can't be jailed for your debts," Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said. "On the other hand, he {the judge} may have felt she had means to pay."

In a story published in the Potomac News, a Prince William newspaper, a day after Kosinski's appeal hearing, Thornton was quoted as saying, "The question at this point is her ability to pay it. The first flag is that she was at the point to qualify for legal aid. You don't put someone in jail because they can't pay a fee."

Kosinski said she filed her claim with the state because lawyers told her she could not sue Molinari, who as a judge is exempt from civil suits based on his legal decisions.

"I will never forget being locked up like a criminal," she said. "I was supposed to have my children that weekend, and I had to call them from jail to tell them why I wasn't there, so they wouldn't think it was because I didn't want to be with them . . . . My daughter said I talk about it every day. The only way to forget, maybe, is to be compensated."