They started lining up for Sherwood District Court at 7 a.m. By 8, the line snaked from the door of Judge Milas Hale III’s courtroom, down the hallway, through the atrium, and halfway down another hallway.
Everyone in attendance was there for their periodic assessment related to misdemeanor hot check charges. Many of those present today are well into their second decade of paying fines and fees to the court, often on original checks that totaled less than $100. All those we spoke with had paid thousands of dollars. Some broke down in tears describing the hamster wheel of debt and incarceration they had found themselves on, with any failure to appear or pay their fines resulting in additional fines, court costs, warrants and stints in jail up to 160 days, losing jobs, cars, homes, and relationships because of repeated incarcerations by the court.
On Tuesday, the ACLU of Arkansas, 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, filed suit against Pulaski County, the City of Sherwood and Judge Hale on behalf of five plaintiffs who say they have been trapped for years in that cycle of debt.
Reggie Koch, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that Hale has recused himself from sitting over the cases of those who filed suit.
Inside the courtroom, decorated in shades of beige and brown save for a large portrait of a vaguely smiling judge on one wall, it was justice on an assembly-line scale, with defendants queued up behind a rope line along the wall before being called to stand before the judge. The longest the reporter saw a defendant stand before Hale – from “Good Morning” to being dismissed to talk to the clerk – was approximately 45 seconds, with many defendants spending less than 10 seconds before the bench before being shuffled on. Nonetheless, defendants told us, if they don’t show up for these cursory appearances before the judge, they are slapped with additional fines and fees, along with warrants for failure to appear that can land them in jail.
We caught Richard Green, Sr. coming out of the courtroom. Since passing a hot check for $58 in 1998, Green has been trapped in a spiraling web of debt and incarceration, forced to return every three months to check in with the court. He pays $200 every month. Green said he has been sent to jail five times on warrants related to his 1998 hot check charge, spending a total, he claims, of 405 days in the Pulaski County Jail.
“I’ve probably paid thousands and thousands of dollars,” Green said. “I have lost everything because of this…. It’s just a revolving cycle I’m on. You never know when you’re going to get it paid off. It’ll seem like you’re going to get it paid off, but you don’t get it paid off. You think it’s going down, but then it’s going back up on you. You never get through paying.”
Another person there was Tamatrice Williams. She has been paying fees and fines for 16 years on hot checks she said totaled no more than $300. She estimates she’s paid over $15,000 in fees and fines over the years.
“I had maybe three checks that were insufficient funds,” she said. “I didn’t realize it, and I had to come to court here. I tried to go buy the checks back, but they wouldn’t let me do it. I had to come here. Basically, it’s just been ongoing ever since. It went from $35 to $40 all the way up to thousands of dollars. I’ve been jailed seven to eight times. I lost my home, cars, jobs, everything over the situation.”
The first time she was sent to jail out of Sherwood’s hot check court, she said, she sat in jail for three months. It was the first time she’d ever been to jail.
After Williams went before Hale this morning, she came out weeping, saying that the Judge had inexplicably wiped her slate clean and told her she was free to go. She stood outside the Sherwood municipal complex and cried with others there for hot check court, some of whom she had befriended after seeing them every few months for years.
“Oh my God,” Williams said. “I feel so free now. I’ve never been in trouble before, never been in jail before. This is it. I haven’t even had a traffic ticket before.” Asked why she thought Hale had decided to nullify all her remaining fines and fees, she said she didn’t know.
“I have no idea, but I’m thankful right now, and I’m definitely grateful now because I feel like I can do whatever I want to do right now,” she said. “I’ve got my freedom back. I’ve finally got my freedom back. I can finally live my life with my husband and my kids.”
One of those who embraced Williams was Shirley Ann Kirklin. Her original charges stem from checks written in 1997. She said she has paid almost $7,000 to the court, but her paperwork shows she still owes $904.98. She questioned why Hale asks people to come to court even if they’re up to date on their payments.
“Even when you’re paying the fine, he wants to see you in front of him,” she said. “Why do you have to leave your job to come in and you’re steady paying? … He’s got all the proof in there in front of him. So why are we steady coming to court if we’re paying? We’re paying you to not pick us up. We’re steady losing jobs, we have to get out, still support our family, but we’re still being faulted for the same charge.”
Kirklin said she had been to jail six times on warrants related to fines and fees associated with the 1997 charges, with each incarceration causing her to lose a job. “We ain’t robbing and stealing and killing, and we’re in jail?” Kirklin said. “We’re paying a life fee for nothing. It’s devastating. This has really caused hurt to relationships. We don’t know if we’re coming or going. We don’t know what’s right anymore … I think it’s legalized extortion. Seems like there’s something going on up under the table. I can’t put my finger on it, but paying the fine for the same crime over and over again and you’re still paying? I’m going to be paying this for the rest of my life.”
Another there for this morning’s session of District Court was a young woman we’ll call J, who later contacted the Arkansas Times and asked that her name not be used. She said she had drove in from seeing her family in Oklahoma last night specifically to appear before Hale this morning. Her conversation with Hale lasted less than 30 seconds. She said her original charges stemmed from a 2010 incident in which she claims her purse was stolen. She denies writing the hot checks she was later charged over, but said her claims weren’t believed when she brought them up in court. J said she’s paid almost $5,000 to the court in fines and fees and still owes almost $3,500.
J, who said she’s heard Sherwood court staff and cashiers refer to hot check court as “Million Dollar Thursday,” said she’s been in jail three times on warrants out of Sherwood, the longest stint 120 days. The last time she went to jail, J said, Sebastian County Sheriff’s Deputies came to the class she was taking at UA-Fort Smith, handcuffed her in front of her classmates, and marched her to a waiting patrol car. After being held for six hours without, she said, being allowed to call her family to tell them where she was, she was transported to the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center. She said she moved to Little Rock from Fort Smith specifically to make sure she made her court dates in Sherwood, for fear of going to jail again.
“I think once you’re on their radar, you have a target on your back,” she said. “They want you to fail, because they see you as money. You’re a price tag to them. That’s the only way to see it. … If you miss anything, he charges either $340 or $370, but he hits you every month for it. I was actually reading the other night in my paperwork, because I was confused. I didn’t remember when I went to court. And it actually says that once he sentences you to jail time, you actually have to pay a fee for going to jail. You’re charged for him sentencing you. With him, the restitution, until you’ve paid off the original balance of the check and the money to the court or to the state, you don’t get your $40 a day [subtracted from fines] for being in the county [jail]. You’re just in time out. You lose your job, you lose money, you lose cars. It’s really a hassle.”
While J said she believes Hale to be a good man who wants people to avoid re-offending, she doesn’t believe he understands the hardships he’s putting on people with the spiraling fines and fees from the court. She hopes the ACLU lawsuit will change things.
“I was standing in that line, and everybody was talking about it,” she said. “I think the root of the problem is that we shouldn’t have done it in the first place. But we should be treated like humans. Once you get in over your head, you can’t keep above water.”