The 58-page lawsuit filed against the city of Sherwood, Pulaski County, and District Judge Milas Hale on Aug. 23, is on behalf of four people—including a cancer patient.
According to the ACLU of Arkansas and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, thousands of the city’s most financially strapped citizens are being thrown into “debtors’ prisons” for not paying fines as a result of writing bounced checks.
“Through a labyrinthine—and lucrative—system, a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County,” the group said in the lawsuit. “Those costs are often borne by the poorest and most disadvantaged citizens in the community.”
The lawsuit stated that the citizens are in a never-ending cycle of confusion and court proceedings.
Executive Director of the Arkansas ACLU Rita Sklar believes the city’s actions are just another way to benefit financially.
“They’re making money on the backs of poor people,” Sklar told Arkansas Online. “It’s as simple as that. The non-poor people don’t end up in jail.”
The plaintiffs in the case include Lee Andrew Robertson, a 44-year-old cancer patient who in 2009 wrote 11 bad checks that totaled $200 in the “Hot Check Division” of Sherwood. He spent several weeks in jail and still owes the $2,600 in court costs, fines and fees related to the bounced checks.
According to the lawsuit, Robertson was jailed in Pulaski county for not footing the bill of a $3,054 debt owed to Sherwood and will likely be incarcerated again, given that he now owes fines in Pulaski county.
Another plaintiff, 40-year-old Rachelle Petree wrote one bad check in 2011 for $28.93, which resulted in at least seven arrests over a six-year span. She owes nearly $3,300 in fines and court costs and was jailed for 25 days when she was unable to pay it all off.
The lawsuit also accuses city officials of keeping court proceedings private from the media and public, and also required that defendants waive their right to an attorney before entering the courtroom.
Jama Godbee knows a few things about bad checks and the negative effects it can have on a business owner. Godbee is owner of Kiehl Avenue Flea Market in Sherwood.
“We recently had to make the decision to just not accept checks any longer,” Godbee told Arkansas Online. “If we’re having to cover things out of our own pocket, it can take a hit on your store.”
However, Godbee does feel poorer citizens are facing harsher consequences for their actions.
“It’s really making money on the backs of the poor and it is hard to think of anything more reprehensible to be honest with you,” Godbee said.