Tuesday, August 23, 2016

TOP STORY >> Hot checks focus of suit in Sherwood

The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Sherwood, challenging its decades-long hot-check collections program that often sends debtors to jail if they don’t pay up.

The suit accuses Sher-wood’s district court of stacking the deck against defendants, who must not only make good on their bad checks but also pay thousands of dollars in hefty fines above the original checks.

Defendants in addition to Sherwood include District Court Judge Milas (Butch) Hale III and Pulaski County, which uses the Sherwood court to collect hot checks.

The plaintiffs include four people who were jailed “for their inability to pay court fines and fees in violation of longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people for failure to pay debts. Fees collected in addition to hot checks make up 12 percent of Sherwood’s budget,”the suit alleges.

The hot check court generates about $2 million a year in revenue for the city. Judge Hale’s father, Milas Hale II, had presided over the court for several years before he retired.

Sherwood officials were unavailable for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that “through a labyrinthine and lucrative system, a single check for $15 returned for in-sufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines, and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County.”

“Upon entering a conviction for a hot check misdemeanor,” the lawsuit alleges, “Judge Hale typically sentences the individual to probation and to pay the following amounts: restitution in at least the amount of the unpaid check, a $165 fine, $100 in court costs, a $25 Prosecuting Attorney Hot Check Fee, a $30 Restitution Fee, a $50 Warrant Fee, a $20 City Jail Fee and a $20 County Jail Fee. Thus the court costs, fines, and fees associated with a hot check conviction, regardless of the amount of the unpaid check, exceed $400.”

Air Force veteran Phillip Axelroth, 68, of Sherwood is among the plaintiffs who claim the court is using “illegal exaction” under Arkansas law.

“The unconscionable things happening in the Sherwood Hot Check Court have no place in our community,” said Axelroth. “We stand with our neighbors in saying these predatory practices must stop.”

In September 2011, Nikki Rachelle Petree, 40, who lives in White County, wrote a check for $28.93 that was returned for insufficient funds.

According to the lawsuit, “Over the next six years, Ms. Petree was arrested at least seven times as a result of this returned check, paid Sherwood at least $640 she could not afford to pay to cover court costs, fines and fees, and has been jailed for over 25 days.

“Ms. Petree is currently incarcerated in the Pulaski County Jail because she was unable to pay $2,656.93 in court costs, fines, and fees imposed by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court. Despite Ms. Petree’s inability to pay, she still faces thousands of dollars in unpaid costs, fines, and fees and the likelihood that she will be incarcerated again in the future.”

“The resurgence of debtors prisons across our country has entrapped poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

“The Sherwood District Court epitomizes the criminalization of poverty and the corrupting effect of financial incentives on our local courts. Not only does this ‘Hot Check’ court completely ignore the long-standing principle that a person cannot be punished because they are poor, but by using coercive practices to collect money from the poorest Arkansans, this debtors’ prison scheme generates huge revenues for the city. Revenue from the district court constitutes nearly 12 percent of the city’s budget, second only to city and county sales tax, ” the suit says.

Arkansas Times Blog contributed to this report.