Arkansas justices reverse ruling for city in county jail fuss

Costs, prisoner status at issue

A dispute between the city of Blytheville and Mississippi County over the cost of housing municipal prisoners in the county jail was returned to circuit court Thursday, after the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed a lower court judge's decision for the city.

The justices reversed and remanded the Mississippi County circuit judge's ruling that the city's payments for housing municipal prisoners in the county jail should be offset by taxes city residents pay for upkeep of the more than 150-bed jail, located in Luxora.

The split majority of the high court also said the judge had erred in interpreting a "municipal prisoner" as one who only violated a municipal ordinance.

The dispute arose from a debt the county said it was owed by the city for feeding and housing prisoners in 2013. When Mississippi County filed suit in 2014, it claimed the city owed the county between $275,000 and $305,000.

Blytheville countered that it owed just $110 for a single prisoner that had been held two days for violating a city ordinance, and that the debt was paid by its residents' taxes.

More than a decade earlier, the county Quorum Court passed an ordinance stating that cities would pay $35 a day to house municipal inmates in the county jail. The cost was raised in 2008 to $55 per day, according to court records.

In its lawsuit, Mississippi County pointed to Arkansas Code Annotated 12-41-506, which states in part, "In the absence of an agreement on jail costs between a county and all municipalities having law enforcement agencies," a quorum court may "establish a daily fee to be charged municipalities for keeping prisoners of municipalities in the county jail."

The court's majority opinion, written by Justice Courtney Goodson, noted that for years, nonbinding opinions by the state's attorneys general have interpreted "prisoners of municipalities" to include not just city ordinance violators, but those being held on misdemeanor charges.

The 6-1 opinion overturned the circuit court's narrower interpretation of the statute.

The case was remanded to the circuit court for a decision on what the outstanding debt is.

"It would be a blow to the city of Blytheville, but it would kind of be status quo for cities across the state," said Don Zimmerman, the director of the Arkansas Municipal League. An attorney for the league represented Blytheville in the case.

Michael Mosley, the attorney for Mississippi County, did not respond to several messages seeking comment Thursday. Neither did the Association of Arkansas Counties.

Justice Josephine Hart wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. She wrote that she agreed with the majority's decision to reverse the lower-court ruling that Blytheville could offset payments to the jail through taxes paid by city residents.

However, she said she disagreed with the majority's interpretation of "municipal prisoners," saying she agreed with the circuit judge.

Additionally, Hart said she found it "troublesome" that the majority cited nonbinding legal opinions by the attorney general in its rulings.

"They can be tainted by political bias," Hart wrote of the opinions. "Furthermore, they are not tempered in the crucible of judicial review."

Metro on 02/23/2018

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