Arkansas Cancer Patient Sent To ‘Debtor’s Prison’ Spurs Lawsuit


A judge in Sherwood, Arkansas is accused of running a “modern-day debtors’ prison” that victimized a 44-year-old cancer patient as well as others. The Arkansas American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil rights lawsuit on Tuesday  spurred in part by the case of an Arkansas cancer patient who was recently sent to jail for owing about $3,000 to the city.

In late 2009, Lee Robertson started undergoing his first stint of chemotherapy to battle pancreatic cancer . This made it impossible for him to work. As a result, he wrote checks to 11 local businesses for amounts ranging from five dollars to $41. The checks totaled about 200 dollars. After his checks bounced, Robertson was charged with 11 hot check misdemeanors and a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was eventually taken to the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court and pleaded guilty via a video conference from his jail cell, but he was not notified of his right to counsel and did not waive it. He was sentenced to pay restitution, fines and court costs totaling $2,407.01.

Over 2 thousand dollars for a man who couldn’t even pay 200. Robertson attempted to explain his inability to pay, but this was disregarded by the judge according to court documents. According to ACLU executive Rita Sklar:

“A single bounced check written 10 years ago for $15 can be leveraged into a debt of thousands and thousands of dollars in fines and fees for inability to pay the original check and then inability to pay the payments that were set up.”

This certainly seems to be exactly w what happened to Robertson.  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 for owing the court $3,054.51.

Robertson 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. According to an ACLU press release, the lawsuit alleges that like Robertson, defendants are required to waive their right to counsel before entering the courtroom. The hot check defendants are presented with a “waiver of counsel” form that they must full out before entering the court. This violates the Arkansas Constitution, which guarantees the right to legal counsel.  The court also bars defendants’ family and friends from witnessing the proceedings, and no transcripts are kept of the hearings.

According to an ACLU press release, the Arkansas Executive Director Rita Sklar :

“When the criminal justice system serves as unscrupulous debt collectors for the public and private sector, without regard to due process, the government is not only violating people’s rights, it is facilitating the never-ending cycle of poverty: threatening the poor with incarceration for failure to pay bills they can’t pay, keeping them from jobs that may help them pay their bills, and stacking up fines that dig the poor into an even deeper hole.”

Sklar’s words are illustrated by Nikki Petree’s case also named in the lawsuit. Petree, 40, was charged for bouncing a single check for $28.93. She has been arrested in connection with that charge on at least seven occasions, and been jailed for more than 25 days. She’s paid at least $640 to the city.

Judge Hale denied any wrongdoing in a statement to KATV. He said:

“We do not run a so called ‘debtor’s prison’ in Sherwood. If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate.”

So apparently it’s ok to run a debtors’ prison as long as they don’t comply a few times first even if the reason you can’t is because you have pancreatic cancer.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had some particularly harsh words about Sherwood’s situation:

“This is a broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn. People are doomed for failure when they appear before the court, and most significantly trapped in this never-ending cycle of expanding debt. With the resurgence of debtors’ prisons, we will continue to see people cycle in and our of jails and prisons across our country merely because of their inability to pay fines and fees tied to low-level, nonviolent offenses. We do hope that the Justice Department will use its bully pulpit to speak out against debtors’ prisons and the criminalization of poverty and take more enforcement action to help bring an end to these broken court systems across the country.”


Image courtesy of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

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