Set­tle­ment OK’d in suit over bounced checks in Arkansas

Texarkana Gazette - - STATE - By Andrew Demillo

LIT­TLE ROCK, Ark.—A cen­tral Arkansas city and a lo­cal judge agreed Tues­day to change the way they han­dle sus­pects charged with writ­ing bad checks to ad­dress ac­cu­sa­tions they were ef­fec­tively op­er­at­ing a debtors’ prison that im­posed hefty fines and jail time for thou­sands of poor res­i­dents.

A fed­eral judge ap­proved the set­tle­ment in the law­suit against the city of Sher­wood and Dis­trict Court Judge Mi­las “Butch” Hale III. The suit was filed by the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law on be­half of five res­i­dents. The law­suit was dis­missed on pro­ce­dural grounds in June, but the groups had asked the fed­eral judge to re­con­sider that rul­ing.

The agree­ment calls for in­di­vid­u­al­ized eval­u­a­tions of a de­fen­dant’s abil­ity to pay and the use of com­mu­nity ser­vice to pay fines. It states that the judge will only or­der a de­fen­dant jailed for fail­ure to pay or to com­plete com­mu­nity ser­vice if he de­ter­mines and makes writ­ten find­ings that the fail­ure to com­ply was “will­ful.” It also said the court won’t or­der a per­son’s driver’s li­cense re­voked for not pay­ing or per­form­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice.

The law­suit claimed the hot check court is­sued an ar­rest war­rant each time a per­son fails to make a pay­ment, re­gard­less of their abil­ity to pay, and used each war­rant as an op­por­tu­nity to as­sess more fines and fees against the in­di­vid­ual.

Michael Mosley, an at­tor­ney for Hale and Sher­wood, said some of the changes ex­isted be­fore the law­suit was filed last year while oth­ers were put in place af­ter the judge at­tended train­ing put on by the state’s Ad­min­is­tra­tive Of­fice of the Courts.

“As we’ve al­ways main­tained, and this agree­ment re­flects, the court’s prac­tices are con­sti­tu­tional and Judge Hale has al­ways con­sid­ered a per­son’s abil­ity to pay in de­ter­min­ing a sen­tence af­ter a find­ing of guilt,” Mosley said in an email.

The set­tle­ment doesn’t call for any money or at­tor­neys’ fees to be paid in the case.

“Our clients were look­ing to en­sure that ev­ery­one who ap­pears in that court is given due process un­der the law and this set­tle­ment en­sures that,” Holly Dick­son, le­gal di­rec­tor for the ACLU of Arkansas, said.

The groups had claimed the court’s prac­tices were part of a na­tion­wide prob­lem of poor de­fen­dants be­ing jailed for not pay­ing fines and fees they could never af­ford. The is­sue drew at­ten­tion dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the 2014 killing of an un­armed black 18-year-old by a white po­lice of­fi­cer in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. Sim­i­lar chal­lenges have been filed in other states, in­clud­ing a fed­eral law­suit in Ok­la­homa ear­lier this month that claims that state’s debt-col­lec­tion sys­tem rou­tinely sends poor peo­ple to jail for fail­ing to pay court fines and fees.

“This set­tle­ment will help dis­man­tle the struc­tures that have fueled and sup­ported in­di­gent in­car­cer­a­tion in the City of Sher­wood, Arkansas, for far too long,” Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lawyers Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law, said in a state­ment.

“We will con­tinue our work to fight debtors’ pris­ons and end mass in­car­cer­a­tion across the coun­try.”

Un­der the pro­posal, the Sher­wood court will keep video record­ings of its pro­ceed­ings for one year and make them ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic, and will al­low the pub­lic to ob­serve the pro­ceed­ings. The law­suit had ac­cused Hale of clos­ing court pro­ceed­ings to the pub­lic, a claim he de­nied.

This set­tle­ment will help dis­man­tle the struc­tures that have fueled and sup­ported in­di­gent in­car­cer­a­tion in the City of Sher­wood, Arkansas, for far too long.”— Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lawyers Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law

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