Friday, September 09, 2016

TOP STORY >> Check court in Sherwood denies abuse

Leader staff writer

After receiving a 58-page, 11-count federal lawsuit complaint in late August alleging improprieties in policy and action in the city’s hot check court, Sherwood has countered with a 32-page response which states again and again that the defendants “deny each and every material averment.”

The suit also named Pulaski County and District Judge Milas “Butch” Hale as defendants.

What the trio isn’t denying, it’s saying it doesn’t “at this time have sufficient information to either confirm or deny” the other allegations.

The ACLU filed the suit filed Aug. 23 on behalf of a number of individuals who have been tied up in Sherwood’s hot check court for years. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.

According to the suit, the Sherwood court has about 49,000 active hot-check cases (based on 2011 figures) and issues, on average, “96 warrants a day, 365 days a year.”

The plaintiff and their attorneys are not asking for a specific amount of money, but are asking that all money exacted from the plaintiffs that was misused to be refunded. The group also wants an order stopping the court from practicing its “unlawful policies.”

The city, county and judge state in their response that they have “immunity, including but not limited to judicial, absolute, statutory and qualified immunity.”

The suit claims that Sherwood’s hot check court “has become notorious throughout the community for zealously prosecuting misdemeanor violations of the Arkansas Hot Check law, creating a system used by local officials to criminalize those who do not have enough money to cover bounced checks.”

“A state may not punish an individual just because he or she is poor,” is the opening statement in the federal complaint against the city, county and judge.

The lawsuit pushes the issue that the city and court use “threat and the reality of incarceration to trap their poorest citizens in a never-ending spiral of repetitive court proceedings and ever- increasing debt.”

The lawsuit filed in be-half of Charles Dade, Nakita Lewis, Nikki Petree, Andrew Robertson and Philip Axelroth, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, states that the court is violating “fundamental constitutional rights which ensure that an individual, even if convicted of a crime and sentenced to pay a fine, may not then be re-arrested and sent to jail simply because of his or her inability to pay.”

The city, along with the county and the judge “specifically deny that they had anything to do with the creation or maintenance of any ‘debtor’s prison’ and any other wrongdoing Plaintiff’s imply.”

The lawsuit response goes on to say that the three entities “maintain that no policy or custom of the city was the moving force behind the alleged violations of any person’s rights.”

It’s one of the few times in the 23-page answer that is more than “denying each and every material averment.”

Judge Hale has said that he has nothing to hide.

“I have a seat to the right of me for the press to come in anytime and see what we are doing,” he said.

The lawsuit disputes Hale’s claim of having nothing to hide.

The suit alleges that the court has no recordings or transcripts of the proceedings and holds no hearing on the closure of the criminal proceedings.

“The secrecy shrouding proceedings … also ensures violations of hot check defendants’ constitutional rights, as alleged in this complaint, go unchecked and unchallenged,” the suit states.

In the response, the city admits “there is no requirement that a transcript be created of the Sherwood District Court. However, records are kept regarding the proceedings that occurred.”

It goes on to deny that the plaintiffs “had anything to do with the alleged constitutional violations.

City Attorney Steve Cobb said after responding to the claims “the case most likely will go into discovery before a court date is set.”

The city of Sherwood and Judge Hale are represented by Michael Allen Mosley, an attorney provided by the Arkansas Municipal League. No attorney was listed for the county on the answer packet submitted to the courts.