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In seeking the dismissal of a Sherwood woman's lawsuit alleging the city violated her constitutional rights while prosecuting her on hot-check charges, the city is "desperate" to recast her allegations as claims against a judge, she asserted Wednesday in a court filing.

The effort to "recast [her] allegations of unconstitutional municipal policies" as complaints against the judge who presides over the city's hot-check court is merely "an attempt to muddle the issues," Tamatrice Williams' attorney, Mike Laux of Little Rock, said in a response to the city's motion to dismiss.

Laux called Williams "a hardworking African-American woman and mother of five [who] was arbitrarily threatened, harassed and imprisoned for a period of nearly 20 years over three bounced checks written for family essentials."

On Feb. 1, Williams filed a lawsuit in federal court in Little Rock mirroring the allegations in a 2016 lawsuit backed by two civil-rights organizations that aimed to have the court's practices declared unconstitutional. That lawsuit was resolved in November in an agreement signed by the city and its hot-check-court judge, Milas "Butch" Hale, stipulating that the court will no longer jail people who can't afford to pay fines and fees imposed for bouncing a check and will evaluate each defendant's ability to pay before determining a sentence.

The plaintiffs in the 2016 lawsuit were backed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the national Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. The ACLU has also pursued legal action targeting other state and local courts across the country as part of a nationwide effort to reverse a trend toward state and local courts becoming money-making institutions at the expense of defendants' constitutional rights.

The U.S. Department of Justice, meanwhile, directed court administrators across the country to re-emphasize to judges presiding over misdemeanor and traffic cases the need to consider defendants' constitutional rights.

On Feb. 20, Arkansas Municipal League attorneys representing Sherwood, the sole defendant in Williams' case, asked U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. to throw her case out. They said her suit was filed a day too late to comply with the statute of limitations; focuses on actions of a state judge, which cannot bind the city; consists of claims that could have been raised during her prosecution on the hot-check charges; and cannot be pursued because the city is entitled to sovereign immunity.

"The city's attempt at bringing [Williams'] municipal liability claim within the purview of 'judicial actions' by misrepresenting [her] carefully worded city policy allegations is cynical and unavailing," Laux argued.

He said Williams alleges that the city, through officials and policymakers including members of the Sherwood City Council "funded, operated and created official policies constituting an unconstitutional collections scheme."

"These official policies were financially lucrative for the City, and the collections scheme was advertised and promoted by the city throughout Pulaski County," Laux said.

He said the "intent and effect of the underlying policy decisions" is reflected, "perhaps most notably, by Sherwood City Council meeting minutes. ... Such admissions demonstrate the complained-of policy is squarely attributable to the City, and that the City was indispensable to the operation of the collections scheme. The City must concede that its policy was designed, at least in part, to help serve warrants and to 'get the revenue coming in.'"

Noting that Sherwood Mayor Virginia R. Young signed the settlement agreement in the earlier case, known as Dade v. Sherwood, Laux said "the clear inference ... is that the City must have felt that it was responsible for something having to do with the unconstitutional conduct of which the Dade plaintiffs complained."

Laux also argued that the three-year statute of limitations for Williams' case began on Aug. 25, 2016, "when her years of back-breaking financial obligations to the City were ... inexplicably waived and all criminal matters against her were dropped." That was two days after the Dade lawsuit was filed.

He also argued that until Aug. 25, 2016, state proceedings were ongoing against Williams, which according to Moody's rulings in the Dade case, would have barred any civil rights complaint challenging her prosecution.

The attorney said the city's immunity arguments don't apply because Williams isn't challenging her underlying convictions and "consciously steers clear of the doctrinal pitfalls identified by this Court in the Dade decision."

Metro on 03/23/2018

Print Headline: Sherwood bid to toss suit 'desperate,' woman says

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