Lawsuit Challenges Arkansas City and County Practice of Arresting People Over Court Fines Associated with Bad Checks

An effective policy of debtors prison said to violate the federal constitution and various parts of Arkansas' state constitution.


The city of Sherwood, Arkansas, rides hard on people who write bad checks in Pulaski County. Even a $15 bad check can, and often does, lead to thousands owed to the county in fines and fees, and lots of jail time. This practice is unconstitutional, argues a lawsuit filed today in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas against Sherwood, Arkansas, Pulaski County, and Judge Milas Hale III.

Ell Brown/Foter

The suit was jointly filed by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Morrison & Foerster LLP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas.

The city, county and its officers have a regular practice of imprisoning people for court fees and fines without ascertaining whether the jailed can actually afford to pay them, the suit argues, and without proper provision of legally required counsel or an actual public trial.

Article 16, Section 13 of the Arkansas constitution is thus implicated, they argue, in addition to the 6th and 14th Amendments of the federal constitution. (That provision of the state constitution states that "Any citizen of any county, city or town may institute suit, in behalf of himself and all others interested, to protect the inhabitants thereof against the enforcement of any illegal exactions whatever.")

Article 2 Section 16, of the Arkansas constitution against imprisonment for debt, is also being violated, the suit alleges (although my read of that section mentions only civil actions, not criminal ones, and leaves an out for "fraud" which I imagine a bad check could be interpreted as. Note: I am not a lawyer.)

The "hot check" court proceedings, as the lawsuit alleges, are kept closed to the public other than defendants and counsel. No recordings or transcripts are made, nor does the clerk even create a record of who shows up in court.

Defendants are forced, the suit alleges, to sign a waiver of counsel as a condition of entering the courtroom, without having their rights explained to them. The four plaintiffs, according to my read of the filing, have written bad checks that likely amount to less than a thousand (one of the plaintiffs did not have the specific amount listed, so it's possibly higher, but the ones who did have their amounts specified amounted to less than $600). Between them they face nearly $15,000 in court fines and fees and have spent a combined over 200 days in jail just for being too poor to pay these fees, costs, and fines.

Each conviction in this hot check court, no matter the size of the check, gets you an instant $400 in addition to any restitution to the person you wrote the check to. If you don't pay instantly, you must show up in the future for "review hearings" over whether you are meeting a payment plan. No assessment of ability to pay is made. The accused are not told of any possible alternatives, such as community service.

Existing Arkansas code says that assessments of ability to pay must be part of "assessment and collection of all monetary fines." The suit alleges Sherwood and Pulaski County are violating that code.

Any failure to pay or appear at those "review hearings" are used as a pretext to create a whole new set of criminal proceedings and fines against hot check defendants, which gets you at least another $300 in fines. A whole new series of "review hearings" creating an infinite loop of new chances to hit the defendants with new charges for failure to pay and failure to appear are then set in motion on the new charges.

The court will also regularly throw people in jail during this process, again with no inquiry into ability to pay. The suit asserts that hundreds of other people besides the named defendants have faced this pattern of behavior and jailing from the city and county and considers itself a class action suit on all of their behalf (as well as on the behalf of any Arkansas citizen having their tax dollars misused by this pattern of alleged misbehavior on the part of city, county, and court).

The hot check division claims to issue over 35,000 warrants related to bad checks a year. In fiscal 2015, over $2.3 million was collected in court fines, over 11 percent of the city's total general funds budget.

An emailed press release sums up their purpose and goal in the suit:

"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…."

"Across the country, the cost of debtors' prisons in human lives and public resources is enormous," said ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar. "When the criminal justice system serves as unscrupulous debt collectors for the public and private sector, without regard to due process, the government is not only violating people's rights, it is facilitating the never-ending cycle of poverty: threatening the poor with incarceration for failure to pay bills they can't pay, keeping them from jobs that may help them pay their bills, and stacking up fines that dig the poor into an even deeper hole. We need open court proceedings and public accountability, fair, rational laws that take into account defendant's ability to pay and prohibit incarceration for failure to pay, and we need to stop raising money on the backs of the poor."…

The lawsuit also makes a claim under Arkansas' "illegal exaction" law, which allows taxpayers to sue for a misuse of public tax funds. Philip Axelroth, a resident of Sherwood, represents himself and other taxpayers in condemning Sherwood and Pulaski County for their role in perpetuating the illegal debtors' prison scheme.

The suit seeks to have the suspect practices declared unconstitutional, to have them cease the practices, and to refund to the Arkansas citizens' funds misused by the city and county in pursuit of those practices under the "illegal exaction" law, as well as attorneys fees to the plaintiffs.

C.J. Ciaramella reported earlier today on the Justice Department objecting to keeping the poor locked up just for inability to pay bail.

I've reported before on how petty law enforcement practices can ruin the lives of the indigent. Earlier reporting about effective debtors prisons in these here United States.

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  1. Who will build the roadz? Apple smugglers!

    Turn off instant translation
    The smugglers Polish apples … they build roads in Russia!
    Department: Economy and Money Crime and Terror | August 22, 2016

    Officers of the Russian FSB rubbed their eyes in surprise when in the forest in the vicinity of the border point “Krasnaya Gorka” with Belarus stumbled upon … well maintained road that is not on any maps – gives the agency TASS.

    It turned out that the old forest lane adapted to their needs and repaired at their own expense smugglers Polish apples from Belarus, where the TIR-y before once again got stuck on the trackless forest.

    For several kilometers the road broadened, made bedding, and even comfortable coves and squares allow TIR-om quickly and easily recycled. The road was not perhaps quite as comfortable as running parallel route Minsk – Moscow, but had one major advantage: no one on it did not control anything.


    1. con’t

      It is not known how long this road functioned, but apparently was very popular, because almost immediately after the Russian border guards arranged on the ambush in their hands came up all at once convoy 9-lorries that smuggled 175 tons of Polish apples, plums, cherries and peaches.

      He informed the representative of the Russian border guard Aleksandr ?aznienko, all transportation was confiscated, and the fruits crushed to a pulp in accordance with the guidelines of President Vladimir Putin, to all the smuggled goods immediately destroy.
      Residents of Kaliningrad border Smolenski years can not solicit from the Russian authorities repair local roads that are in a dreadful state. Meanwhile, it turns out that “the Pole can.”
      It is not known, moreover, that the only way they built the Polish “investors” or maybe it was a joint venture Polish – Belarusian – Russian. In any case, the glorious tradition of smuggling from the time Sergei Piasecki continues with great imagination and enjoys it.

      Of course, after the secret road was detected TIR-y smugglers stopped her ride. Russian border guards, however, have a problem – now have with her constantly on duty. It turns out that the border guard does not have the authority to bar the way or to build its dam. It is therefore hoped that he would soon be with those dy?uruj?cymi pogranicznikami somehow “get along.”

      1. con’t

        Recall that with the introduction of the Russian authorities – in response to Western sanctions – ban on imports of western food, Belarus suddenly became Europe’s largest “producer” of fruit, meat, eggs, and even salmon, although there is no fishing fleet, or access to seas. A total food exports from Belarus to Russia increased several times.

        The process is simple – Western commodities, including Polish fruit, get on Belarus, and are exported to Russia as “Belarus” Belarusian with adhesive labels. President Alexander Lukashenko, whose officials have this good “alluvium”, effectively supplies the thus leaky budget of his country.

        When a truck with the goods included in the end evident “blunder” on the side of the Russian authorities in Minsk, as the saying goes, “fac Glup” saying that apparently the carrier for some reason chose to rozcli? goods in Belarus, and that drove him on to Russia is not their fault.

        In November last year., The Russian service, “Rosselkhoznadzor” got downright mad, when Russia entered transport … subtropical fruit papaya “production Belarus”, which was previously known to grow only in Latin America

        1. I bet untaxed, smuggled Polish produce TASTES LIKE FREEDOM.

      2. the fruits crushed to a pulp in accordance with the guidelines of President Vladimir Putin

        An exorbitant waste to be sure, but probably necessary to keep local bureaucrats from selling the plunder and pocketing a part of the proceeds.

        Of course, addressing what it is that causes people to traffic in fucking produce is out of the question.

        1. I’m sure they get their cut first, before it was pulped.

          1. There’s certainly a kernel of truth at the core of it.

  2. 1) arrest person who wrote a bum check
    2) imprison him so that he loses his job and can’t pay back the new fines he now owes, let alone the bum check he wrote
    3) …
    4) profit!

    1. civil recourse is much better… but, what recourse is there when they cant pay and have no assets?

      1. Indentured servitude?

        1. Break ’em up for parts.

      2. They can possibly pay in the future. In the interim, they can be flagged with the scarlet C, but there’s no reason to levy a punishment that deprives them of the ability to make restitution.

  3. The “hot check” court proceedings, as the lawsuit alleges, are kept closed to the public other than defendants and counsel. No recordings or transcripts are made, nor does the clerk even create a record of who shows up in court.

    Is banjo music played at these proceedings? I guess we’ll never know.

    1. It’s the Benny Hill theme with cops and jurists chasing inmates in and out of jail cells.

          1. The internet is a beautiful and terrible thing.

    1. I’m shocked. The studio was out trying to sell it to the religious types with special trailers featuring Christian rock and everything (downplaying the CGI).

      The trailers most people saw made it look like a CGI mess, and then you had the director out saying he didn’t make a religious movie.

      It’s almost as if the rubes in flyover country aren’t as stupid as they think.

      1. Still haven’t seen the original. Maybe I otter. But in fairness to the remake (which sounds from the tongue-in-cheek descriptions of it Jay gives, godawful), Rotten Tomatoes scores the audience reaction at twice the critics’ score. I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about RT metrics, so maybe it’s just an effort from devoted fans to Get Out the Vote and buoy up a film’s flaccid rating. So the rubes might still be rubes.

        1. The 1959 version (a remake of the 1925 silent) is a classic mid-century Hollywood Technicolor epic. See it.

          1. There was a two-reel version (!) around 1908 that’s available on Youtube since it’s in the public domain.

    2. I mean, I haven’t seen this piece of shit, but I would imagine it’s like the Noah’s arc movie that was really about global warming. Then these assholes are all puzzled why they can’t recreate the success of Passion of the Christ. Maybe because Mel Gibson had an actual vision and didn’t mock his audience.

  4. Dammit. It does it to me every time. The ending in ‘Stand by Me’.

      1. (Jump to 4:32 for a good belly laugh. Worked for me, anyway.)

        1. Was that real?

          1. Yeah, the comments below suggest it’s a skit. I laughed hard, though. Pretty good production value.

  5. Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

    Aren’t civil rights superior to laws? Otherwise, why all the bathroom arguments?

  6. C.J. Ciaramella reported earlier today on the Justice Department objecting to keeping the poor locked up just for inability to pay bail.

    I’m really tired of the Justice Department/the feds general approach of do as we say, not as we do. They really are the biggest hypocritical cunts you’ll ever meet. They come in and talk like they stick up for the little guy and civil rights, but ignore the rampant abuses they commit.

  7. You know who else did bad things? Hitler. Hitler did bad things.

    1. The reality tv show guy who’s running for president?

  8. Can assholes in government really turn alcohol into a pariah like they did with cigarettes?…..2016-08-23

    1. Well, they already tried it once. They got enough of people in the parasite class to go along. Less so everyone else.

      1. Yeh because Prohibition worked out soooo fucking grrrreat!

        What a bunch of clowns.

    2. They can try. They’ll certainly make inroads. But alcohol has a much longer history than tobacco. It’s probably inseparable from humanity.

      Man, I suddenly want a smoke.

  9. Wait, hold up. It is late, I’m tired and having trouble processing this.

    The hot check division claims to issue over 35,000 warrants related to bad checks a year. In fiscal 2015, over $2.3 million was collected in court fines, over 11 percent of the city’s total general funds budget.

    That’s one city with 35,000 warrants per year, just for bad checks. And that brings in more than 10% of the city budget.

    That’s the city of Sherwood, Arkansas, right? Population 30,000.

    They issue more warrants for bad checks than they have people? Holy heck, people!

    According to the wiki, they are a suburb of Little Rock. The total metro population is about 700k.

    I can’t even wrap my head around those numbers. What the heck is going on in this town? Even if everyone in Little Rock shops exclusively in Sherwood and only pays by check that would be an unbelievable number.

    1. There are a million details to this story, which the 58 page filing gets to; one of them that the post doesn’t get into is (the reason the county AND city are plaintiffs) that the county does all its bad check business through the city of Sherwood, so that number is country wide, not just city. It’s still pretty huge.

      1. So I run back to the Wikipedia to learn something:

        Pulaski County is a county in the U.S. state of Arkansas with a population of 392,664, making it the most populous county in Arkansas.

        So a number of warrants roughly equal to 9% of the county population.

        …. wow. That’s a really big number….

        eh…. so…. If Donald Trump were to describe this number of warrants…..

    2. I work in Sherwood. I hate this damned town. There are police every 500 feet, just looking for something to screw with you over. I was in court last week for doing 48 in a 40 that the cops do 60 up-and-down all day long.

    3. I work in Sherwood occasionally. Their police are known state wide for being about as jackbooted as you would expect. I used to go to church with the mayor, and they’re all a bunch of statist. Fuck Sherwood.

  10. Brian, start by telling us who took the bad checks, not sticking it in paragraph three; it matters.
    If it were merchants, shame on them for accepting bad paper for goods. It’s not; it’s the gov’t punishing people for not paying gov’t extortion.
    Simple: Tough shit.

  11. OT:

    “UC study: With new tax, less soda being consumed in Berkeley”
    “Respondents in Berkeley reported a 21 percent drop in drinking soda and sugary beverages after the tax passed, while those in San Francisco and Oakland reported a 4 percent increase.”…..180297.php

    Hmm. Think that sort of discrepancy might raise questions? Naah. Proggies are suckers for a good lie!

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