LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — A central Arkansas city is effectively operating a debtors' prison that imposes hefty fines and jail time for thousands of poor people whose checks bounce and infringes on their constitutional rights by shielding court proceedings from public scrutiny, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit accuses the city of Sherwood and Pulaski County of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of residents through the prosecution of hot check cases. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the lawsuit on behalf of four people who were jailed because they couldn't pay fines related to bounced checks and a Sherwood resident who is challenging the practice as a misuse of taxpayer funds.
The groups say the practice is part of a nationwide problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford, an issue that was highlighted in Ferguson, Missouri after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014.
"Through a labyrinthine — and lucrative — system, a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County," the groups said in the lawsuit.
Sherwood District Court Judge Milas "Butch" Hale III, who presides over the court and is named as a defendant, denied the allegations.
"We do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood," Hale said in an email. "If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate."
The plaintiffs in the case include Nikki Petree, a 40-year-old Arkansas woman who has been in jail for more than 25 days because she was unable to pay more than $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to a bounced check she wrote in 2011 for $28.93. According to the lawsuit, Petree initially faced $700 in court fines, fees and restitution, but the amount ballooned over the years due to related failure to appear and failure to pay charges.
The lawsuit accuses Sherwood and Pulaski County officials of requiring defendants to waive their right to counsel before entering the courtroom and closing court proceedings to the public and the media. Hale denied both claims, saying the court is open to the public and that defendants sign a waiver if they don't want an attorney, but only when they are before him for plea and arraignment or if they have decided to plead guilty at trial.
The groups also claim that the hot check court issues an arrest warrant each time a person fails to make a payment, regardless of their ability to pay, and uses each warrant as an opportunity to assess more fines and fees against the individual.
The groups say Sherwood relies on the hot check fines and fees as a significant revenue source for its operations. The city's receipts from district court fines and forfeitures were estimated to be at least $2.3 million in the 2015 fiscal year, Sherwood's third-highest revenue source after city and county sales taxes, the lawsuit said. Pulaski County has sent misdemeanor hot check cases to the Sherwood District Court since the 1970s, according to the lawsuit. The groups in the lawsuit also suggest that the practice is more widespread than just one county.
In Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice chastised the city of Ferguson in a report last year for what it called a profit-driven court system reliant on fines for petty violations. The investigation, prompted by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer, also found that the city's police department disproportionately targeted black citizens with stops and searches.
The DOJ later filed a lawsuit saying that more than 90,000 summons and citations for municipal violations were issued over a four-year period ending in June 2014, part of an "ongoing and pervasive" misuse of law enforcement to generate revenue in Ferguson.
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