Judge Milas Hale III on the bench in Sherwood.
A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit
filed last August over the hot check division of Sherwood District Court, which attorneys for the plaintiffs say operated as an unconstitutional "debtor's prison"
that trapped poor defendants on a treadmill of debt and incarceration for years — and in some cases, decades.
The lawsuit had named the city of Sherwood, Pulaski County, Judge Milas "Butch" Hale III, and Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley.
In a four-page order filed today, U.S. District Judge James M. Moody, Jr. dismissed the lawsuit without prejudice. In January, Federal Magistrate judge Joe J. Volpe had recommended the case be dismissed,
citing the Younger abstention doctrine. Named for the 1971 case Younger v. Harris, the Younger doctrine prohibits federal courts from hearing civil suits brought by people who are currently being prosecuted in state court for reasons related to the claims in their federal civil suit. Several of the plaintiffs in the civil suit against Sherwood are still under the supervision of that court for penalties and fines related to their hot checks.
You can read Judge Moody's order here:
See related PDF
Arkansas Times published a cover story
about the case in August 2016, detailing the experiences of people who appeared in Sherwood court over hot checks, including one man who said he is still paying fines and fees related to a $58 hot check he wrote in 1998, a woman who said she had paid over $15,000 in fines and had been jailed eight times over $300 worth of hot checks written 16 years ago, and a totally blind man who said he had gone into hiding outside Pulaski County after being hounded by the court over a check for less than $25 written to a liquor store.
ACLU Arkansas, which had been representing the plaintiffs along with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the law firm of Morrison and Foerster, an international law firm with 16 offices around the world, has issued the following statement on the dismissal of the suit.
“We are disappointed that the victims of Sherwood’s unconstitutional debtors’ prison are being denied their day in court on procedural grounds, and not on the substance of our clients’ complaints,” said Rita Sklar, ACLU of Arkansas executive director. “Our justice system should provide equal treatment to the rich and poor. But, for years, the Sherwood court system has criminalized and profited from poor and vulnerable citizens – trapping them in a never-ending spiral of court fees, debt and even jail simply for bouncing a single check. We are analyzing the ruling and will be visiting with our clients to determine our next steps.”
Last year, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, along with Morrison & Foerster LLP and the ACLU of Arkansas filed a class action civil rights lawsuit challenging the modern-day debtors’ prison in Sherwood, Arkansas. The suit was filed on behalf of a concerned taxpayer and four individuals who allege their constitutional rights were violated by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court when they were jailed for their inability to pay court fines and fees in violation of longstanding law forbidding the incarceration of people for their failure to pay debts.