Wednesday, November 15, 2017

TOP STORY >> Settlement approved in hot-check case

Leader staff writer

The official order closing the federal case against Sherwood, its hot-check court and District Judge Milas “Butch” Hale III by the ACLU was signed on Friday and filed Tuesday.

The settlement requires Hale to follow certain procedures, including letting defendants do community service if they cannot pay off their fines.

He recently told the Sherwood City Council that he is already doing so and many of those procedures are ones he has had in place for years.

The agreement states that Hale must evaluate individuals on their ability to pay the legal financial obligations; follow set procedures during initial appearance; make sure the defendants have access to counsel; follow set procedures in making alterations to contempt procedures, arrest warrants and recall of prior warrants, and allow public access to the courtroom physically and by videotape.

The ACLU had filed the lawsuit in August 2016 claiming the hot check court was a debtors’ prison and the judge its warden.

The suit accused Sherwood’s court of stacking the deck against defendants, who had to 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.”

It was originally dismissed in June, but according to Mike Mosley, the Municipal League attorney working the case for Sherwood, the hot-check court and Hale, the ACLU filed what he called a take-another-look-at-it brief in July and that review hadn’t taken place yet.

The June dismissal of the case 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 being prosecuted in state court for reasons related to the claims in their federal civil suit.

Mosely told the Sherwood City Council in late October that the ACLU and the defendants it represents offered a settlement that doesn’t cost Sherwood any money or change the practice and procedures of the court.

Mosely said it was made clear to him that if Sherwood didn’t take the deal, the ACLU would keep on fighting “and then we would have to keep on fighting.”

“What is good about this settlement is that it ends things,” Mosely said.

The council voted to settle.

According to the settlement, “In exchange for Judge Hale and the City of Sherwood’s agreement to the terms set forth herein, and upon filing of the stipulation of dismissal, Plaintiffs hereby release, acquit, and forever discharge with prejudice, and subject to the terms of this Agreement, Judge Hale and the City of Sherwood and all employees, parents, owners, shareholders, agents, trustees, board members, council members, insurers, bond holders, attorneys, subsidiaries, affiliated entities, heirs, and successors.”

Likewise neither the judge nor the city of Sherwood can come back and sue any of the plaintiffs.