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New lawsuit targeting Arkansas hot-check court asks damages

Sherwood says it changed practices after previous case by Linda Satter | February 5, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

A new lawsuit filed in federal court in Little Rock mirrors the allegations in a 2016 lawsuit backed by two civil-rights organizations that targeted Sherwood's hot-check court and was settled in November.

The lawsuit was filed last week on behalf of Tamatrice Williams, one of hundreds of people who both lawsuits said were subjected for years to unconstitutional practices in the court, such as jailing people for being unable to pay fines. It seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the city.

On Nov. 14, attorneys for the city and its hot-check judge, Milas "Butch" Hale, joined five Sherwood residents who sued over the practices in signing a 20-page agreement that put an end to the case. The residents were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.

The agreement, over which U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. agreed to retain jurisdiction for two years, stipulates that the court will no longer jail people who can't afford to pay court fines and fees imposed for bouncing a check. It also requires the court to evaluate each defendant's ability to pay before determining a sentence.

The city didn't concede that it had violated the plaintiffs' rights, but it acknowledged that several new practices were put into place after the lawsuit was filed, and Hale attended a training program offered by the state's Administrative Office of the Courts.

In its mandatory annual training sessions for state judges, the administrative office began placing an emphasis on concerns about debt-collection practices that had been raised by the U.S. Department of Justice in a letter to state courts across the country. The concerns were similar to those raised in the lawsuit, which reflected a national movement to rein in many constitutionally suspect practices in the nation's low-level courts.

At the time the agreement was signed, Moody was considering a request by the plaintiffs to reinstate the case. He had thrown the case out of federal court, saying its issues first needed to be addressed in the state courts.

The plaintiffs disputed that four of the five plaintiffs still had "ongoing" cases in state court as a result of hot-check charges that, despite being filed against them years earlier, still had lingering payments due as a result of fines imposed for failing to pay earlier fines, and fees on each round of fines. The defendants, and Moody, said the cases were still considered ongoing.

Asked Friday about how the allegations in the new suit differ from those in the settled case, attorney Mike Laux of Little Rock said the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which has jurisdiction over federal courts in Arkansas, "has held that allegations against a city claiming it runs an unconstitutional debtors' prison state a viable cause of action for monetary damages as long as there are no pending criminal charges and the litigant is not challenging the underlying condition. This is a very important distinction."

The lawsuit Laux filed on Williams' behalf -- which, coincidentally, was randomly assigned to Moody -- emphasizes that Williams "does not challenge her underlying hot check convictions or fines imposed for those conviction(s), ... does not allege that her underlying hot check convictions or fines were invalid ... [and] does not challenge any state court judgments."

"Judge Moody's rulings were based on doctrines that do not apply to an individual such as Tammy Williams seeking monetary damages," Laux said in an email. "It may be unclear how it proceeds down the road, but as pled, it should be impervious to dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), which is what happened to Dade," as the other case led by Charles Dade of Sherwood is known.

Michael Mosley, an Arkansas Municipal League attorney who represented Sherwood and Hale in the previous case, said Friday that he hadn't yet had time to thoroughly review the new lawsuit, but, "The city denies any wrongdoing alleged and will defend the litigation."

"For nearly 20 years," Laux said in an email, "Tammy Williams, a hard-working mother of five, was repeatedly harassed, threatened, arrested and jailed pursuant to an unconstitutional official policy at the City of Sherwood which turned nominal bounced checks in 1997 into thousands and thousands of dollars, padding its ill-gotten coffers on her back. It is only fair that Ms. Williams be reasonably compensated for this tragic upending of her life. She deserves justice and we hope to secure it for her."

Laux didn't say whether he might later seek class-action status for the lawsuit or if he is aware of any other potential lawsuits with similar allegations on behalf of other individuals.

Metro on 02/05/2018

Print Headline: New lawsuit on hot checks asks damages


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