Friday, June 09, 2017

TOP STORY >> Court cleared on hot checks in Sherwood

Leader staff writer

A federal lawsuit filed in August 2016 against Sherwood, its hot-check court and District Judge Milas “Butch” Hale III has been dismissed.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of five individuals who had dealings with Sherwood’s hot-check court, is expected to be appealed the decision to the 8th U.S. Court of Appeals.

The suit accused Sher-wood’s 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.

The lawsuit alleged that “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.”

Mike Mosley, attorney for Judge Hale, said the dismissal was the correct ruling and that the plaintiffs should be required to go through the natural appeal process. He also said he disagrees that any unconstitutional acts were being done in Hale’s court.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr., agreeing with a January recommendation from Federal Magistrate Judge Joe J. Volpe, dismissed the lawsuit Thursday without prejudice.

The dismissal did not address the hot-check court’s practices or its fairness, issues raised in the ACLU’s lawsuit.

The dismissal was mostly based on the Younger doctrine, which prohibits federal courts from hearing civil suits brought by people who are currently being prosecuted in state court for reasons related to the claims in their federal civil suit.

Several of the plaintiffs in the civil suit against Sherwood are still under the supervision of that court for penalties and fines related to their hot checks.

That’s why it was dismissed without prejudice, meaning it could be brought up again when the individuals have been released by the Sherwood court.

“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 original 58-page, 11-count suit said.

Sherwood countered with a 32-page response which stated again and again that the defendants “deny each and every material averment.”

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

From the beginning, Judge Hale said 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.

Leader editor Jonathan Feldman did come in and observe a hot-check session.

Brandon Lewis, 33, of Pine Bluff was the last case for the day, and typical of most of the cases observed.

His fine was set at $758 after failing to appear in court on the original hot-check charge.

Judge Hale asked him why he missed his last court date. “I had lost my job, a warrant got issued, and I got incarcerated in Jefferson County, and I start my job Friday,” Lewis answered.

The judge praised him for getting a job. Lewis agreed to pay $100 by the end of the month and continue monthly payments.

Court was adjourned. Outside, Lewis said he didn’t know about the hot-check warrant. He said in 2009, when he was living in Sherwood, he wrote a bad check for $60 at Kiehl Avenue Liquor when he bought a bottle of Grey Goose vodka.

Lewis knew Sherwood’s hot-check court is being sued, but declared Pine Bluff’s hot-check court, led by Judge Kim Bridgforth, to be much worse.

He drove away from the courthouse in a pristine Dodge Challenger with matte graphite rims to match.

Rita Sklar, the executive director of the Arkansas ACLU, said, in reference to the case dismissal, “We are disappointed that the victims of Sherwood’s unconstitutional debtors’ prison are being denied their day in court on procedural grounds, and not on the substance of our clients’ complaints.”