WASHINGTON ― Lee Robertson’s trouble began in late 2009, when he was undergoing his first stint of chemotherapy to battle the pancreatic cancer that had made it impossible for him to work. In the course of two weeks, Robertson wrote 11 checks at stores near his home for small amounts ranging from $5 to $41.
Robertson started off owing a few stores about $200. Six years and seven arrests later, in a closed courtroom in Sherwood District Court in Arkansas, Judge Milas “Butch” Hale sentenced the cancer patient to 90 days in jail. His crime? Owing the court $3,054.51.
That was last month. Robertson, 44, is now one of the plaintiffs in a class action federal civil rights lawsuit filed this week by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The suit aims to take on what has been described as a “modern-day debtors’ prison” in the city of Sherwood. Similar practices exist in courts around the country, including in several cities in St. Louis County, which received attention for their debt collection practices following the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, two years ago. Groups like Equal Justice Under Law, ArchCity Defenders, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union have been mounting challenges to unconstitutional court practices in many parts of the nation.
In Sherwood, the “Hot Check Division” of the municipal court is drawing scrutiny. While the division is supposed to be part of the municipal court, the city has marketed the division to the business community in Pulaski County, according to the lawsuit. Sherwood lists the division as a “department” on its website, and calls the court’s work a “service” for merchants ― one that issues “over 35,000 warrants annually” on charges in connection with bad checks. The court collected nearly $12 million in five years.
The new lawsuit describes a “lucrative” system in Sherwood that only barely resembles an actual court or independent judicial process. Bailiffs tell defendants that the court is closed, not allowing family and friends inside, and defendants are forced to sign a “waiver of counsel” form to enter the courtroom, meaning they forfeit their right to an attorney.
The suit claims that the Sherwood Police Department acts as an “extension” of the court’s “collections scheme,” arresting hundreds of people on “failure to pay” or “failure to appear” charges and helping the district court contribute nearly 12 percent of the city’s budget. Each overdrawn check, no matter how small, can bring in $400 in fines and fees, plus restitution for the amount of the check