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GARLAND COUNTY COURTHOUSE Brandonrush via Wikimedia

On April 3, 24-year-old Cameron Guyton left the plasma center where he works in Hot Springs to visit the clerk at the Garland County Courthouse. Guyton, who was convicted of driving while intoxicated in 2019, wanted to check on the restitution he pays monthly. Even though most in-person court operations had stopped weeks earlier due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the clerk’s office was still open to anyone who wanted to make a payment.

At the clerk’s office, Guyton said, he was shocked to learn he owed $750 in court fines and a warrant for failure-to-pay had been issued. He didn’t realize he owed another debt to the court on top of his monthly restitution payments. What’s more, Guyton said, he was told that if he wanted to pay by credit card, he’d need to pay off his entire debt, a chunk of money greater than his rent. Guyton paid the clerk $40, all the cash he had on him, was issued a citation to appear in court in early May, and left.

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Guyton doesn’t know when he’ll be able to come up with the spare funds to pay the fine. A father of a 2-year-old, he’s just trying to make sure his family can eat. “I’m not focusing on paying on the courts right now,” he said. “I’m trying to make sure that my household has food and my kid has diapers right now. Because who knows what could happen tomorrow.”

From March 17 to April 17, the Garland County District Court issued 2,376 warrants for failure to pay fines and fees, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). The number of warrants in Garland County far outpaces those issued by other counties in the same time period: Crittenden County issued 48 warrants on the West Memphis docket, and Pulaski County issued 62 on the Little Rock docket.

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The large number of warrants in Garland County is due in part to warrants being issued for multiple cases against a single person. In several instances, as many as 18 warrants were issued for one person. Some of the newly issued warrants were for unpaid fines related to traffic tickets adjudicated as long ago as the mid-1990s.

The Garland County District Court’s record-keeping has prompted confusion among advocates, who note that CourtConnect, the state’s public database of judicial filings, shows 3,792 results for failure-to-pay warrants from March 17 to April 17. Joe Beard, AOC’s research analyst, told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network that CourtConnect may not be reflective of the true number of warrants issued if clerks are inaccurately entering the docket code.

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These warrants, advocates say, are putting thousands of people at needless risk of arrest during the pandemic and are imposing a significant financial burden during a national emergency. “This is contrary to everything I think represents an appropriate response to an outstanding fine at this particular time,” said Jon Comstock, a former Benton County circuit judge. “It really defies explanation in my mind.”

Mark Allen, chief administrator for Garland County District Court, said that no one will be arrested as a result of the warrants. Instead, Allen said, the warrants direct sheriff deputies to issue citations that instruct their recipients to appear in court. (Allen pointed out that the warrants say “total bond to collect: citation release.” However, the documents also include the text “warrant of arrest.”)

The court is issuing the warrants in an effort to clean up the dockets now that clerks have down time due to the pandemic, Allen said, adding that the court fell behind on failure-to-pay warrants due to understaffing and a switch to a new automated system in 2015. “We’re trying to do an assessment of where the court is,” he said. “We’re finding errors where folks have passed away.”

Because the warrants have only been issued for cases adjudicated before January of this year, the court says it is not imposing undue hardship on people who might not be able to pay due to coronavirus, even though it is asking people to pay now.

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Of the thousands of warrants issued since March 17, the Garland County Sheriff’s Department has only served 27 warrants, because it’s not actively looking for people, sheriff’s department spokeswoman Courtney Kizer said. “Although financially it’s not a good warrant, it’s not considered a warrant where people’s safety is in jeopardy,” Kizer said, adding, “If anything, their wallet is jeopardy.”

The failure-to-pay warrants still might lead to more arrests, Comstock argued. “The court has just delivered to law enforcement a database of part of the population and told them there’s a warrant for their arrest,” he said. “The next thing you know, deputies, based on their knowledge of people in their own community, can drive around and look for somebody, pull them over, stop them. They’re probably gonna ask if they have permission to search their car. They may end up having drugs on them, or they may have committed some offense that causes them to get arrested, but this warrant status is what brought them to the attention of law enforcement. That’s how mass incarceration happens.”

Even if the sheriff arrests no one for failure-to-pay warrants, advocates point out that finances and personal safety are often one and the same in the era of COVID-19. The warrant could still result in people losing money they need during the crisis, argued Michael Kaiser, an attorney based in Little Rock. There’s a question as to whether the decades-old warrants are even enforceable, he added.

“It’s a cash grab at the expense of citizens’ health,” Kaiser said.

Advocates with DecARcerate and Arkansas Immigrant Defense recently wrote a letter to Allen expressing their concerns about the failure-to-pay warrants. They cited a report from earlier this year sponsored by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation that found over half of Hot Springs residents did not make enough to cover the cost of living. They asked the district court to revoke the warrants. “Please withdraw these warrants for the single mother, the immigrant worker, the justice-involved person who is formerly incarcerated and who had a challenging time even finding a job before this pandemic,” they wrote.

Allen countered in a reply to DecARcerate and AID that the district court would not revoke the warrants because “it’s not fair to the thousands of others who have paid their fines or performed community service who may have had the same or more challenges to overcome than those you represent.”

Under Arkansas law, judges are authorized to issue warrants, suspend driver’s licenses and even jail people to enforce fines and fees, which typically fund salaries and personnel costs for the court. This arrangement has been criticized as a modern debtors’ prison that traps many Arkansans in poverty.

Failure-to-pay warrants have already come under criticism in Garland County this year by a candidate for circuit judge, Shane Ethridge. A defense attorney who has worked with indigent clients, Ethridge said he is specifically concerned about payment plans implemented by the district court, one of the options people have to pay off their debt. Each month, the court typically requires a minimum payment of $100 plus a $10 fee that accrues like interest. Ethridge said this policy has resulted in more people being unable to pay their fines. “They may have been able to come up with $30, $40, but they don’t have an extra $100,” he said. Add in the $10 monthly fee, and “you can turn a $100 ticket into $200 pretty quickly,” he said.

Go too long without paying your court debt, and the only option you can afford may be to pay it off by spending time in jail, Ethridge said. “It’s imprisoning poor people,” he added.

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On April 17, the Garland County District Court issued a press release announcing an “amnesty program” for certain misdemeanor warrants, including failure to pay. The program encourages people to present themselves at the clerk’s office before 4 p.m. on May 1. Anyone who can pay their debt in full will see their case dismissed; those who can’t will receive a citation with a court date.

The press release also seems to muddy the waters further by implying that the sheriff will seek out people with active failure-to-pay warrants. “Upon conclusion of the amnesty period, no further consideration will be given,” the release reads. “The Court intends to get tough with outstanding fines. Individuals with warrants need to come in and take care of their business so authorities do not have to come looking for you.”

“ ‘Amnesty’ is not correct,” Kaiser said, “because ‘amnesty’ would imply giving you some sort of break for showing up. It doesn’t. It’s a blatant PR containment move.”

Despite assurances from the court, Guyton is still worried he could be arrested. “I’m a convicted felon,” he said. “It’s easy for them to lock me up and throw away the key.” He’s thankful he still has his job, but “it’s very scary for me, being a new dad and having people that depend on me. It’s very nerve wracking to not know what could happen in the future.”

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.