‘Hot Check Division’ court jails cancer patient for bounced check

© Max Whittaker
Bank fees alone are often enough to discourage people from writing checks they can’t cash, but some municipal courts find it to be an offense worth jailing citizens over – including one person undergoing cancer treatment.

A class action lawsuit in Pulaski County, Arkansas, is shedding light on practices that many believe have led to a “modern-day debtors’ prison.” 

Lee Robertson became familiar with the practice after his pancreatic cancer treatment left him unemployed, but still responsible for bills.

To get by, he wrote a series of checks for a maximum of $41. When the checks bounced, he owed a few stores $200, according to the Huffington Post. However, after the “Hot Check Division” of Sherwood got ahold of him, that numbered turned into $3,054.51 – and it was owed to the court.

The overzealous prosecution of the Arkansas Hot Check law has many concerned about the implications of financially penalizing residents who can’t afford to cash a check.

Through a labyrinthine – and lucrative – a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines, and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County,” the lawsuit reads.

That is how Robertson ended up going from owing $200 to owing $3,000. Over the course of six years, he was arrested seven times for his debt. In cities with punitive check laws like Sherwood, bouncing a check can land citizens on the hook for $400 in fines and fees, on top of the amount due for the original check.

The lawsuit states “municipalities have turned to creating a system of debtors’ prisons to fuel the demand for increased public revenue from the pockets of their poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

Hot checks are a hot button issue in local politics. The 35,000 warrants annually issued for bad checks have raised some $12 million over the course of five years and comprise nearly 12 percent of the city’s budget.

Another issue with this is that while jailing remains high, taxpayer money is funding the jailing of these citizens.

Defendants are also misusing and misapplying public funds received from taxes paid by Plaintiff Philip Axelroth and other taxpayers in Sherwood by arresting and incarcerating individuals,” the lawsuit reads.

Robertson was sentenced to 90 days in jail, which the cancer survivor managed to reduce to just over a month after doing manual labor for the jail. He still owes over $2,600 in court costs, fines, and fees and claims that police will come to his house and threaten to arrest him if he does not pay. His inability to pay increases the risk of him being sent back to jail.

This is how a man who couldn’t afford $200 at a bad moment in his life came to owe over $3,000, because that $200 was able to snowball into a higher, more difficult to pay total.

This is a broken court system that disregards due process rights at every turn,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the Huffington Post. She claimed that the court pays “no attention” to due process rights.

Nikki Petree, 40, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and claims that when a check for $28.93 bounced, she spent nearly a month in jail and had to pay $640 to the city – over 22 times the amount for which she was originally on the hook.

Petree is currently doing time in the Pulaski County Jail after her fees reached $2,656.93, the result of “court costs, fines, and fees imposed by the Hot Check Division of the Sherwood District Court,” the lawsuit claims. If she cannot afford to cover her fees, it is likely that her tab will increase and so too will “the likelihood that she will be incarcerated again in the future.”

Fighting these charges is nearly impossible in Pulaski County. The Sherwood District Court holds their “Hot Check Court” every Thursday, where only the defendant and their counsel may enter the courtroom, isolating them from friends, family and members of the general public who wish to observe the proceedings for themselves.

Transcripts of these hearings are not available, as the court “holds no hearing on the closure of the criminal proceedings to the public and does not consider the effect of the closure on a defendant’s right to a public trial as required by the United States Constitution.”

One particularly egregious aspect of the Hot Check Court is that defendants are given forms for their personal information along with a waiver of counsel form, which means “court officials will often proceed as if anyone who fills out the form has waived his or her right to counsel for all purposes, even if the person is appearing on other types of charges or for other purposes.

While defendants have a right to waive counsel, most of the people waiting in line at Hot Check Court are not informed as to what this means. The lawsuit claims that the court’s staff “do not adequately inform indigent hot check defendants and other indigent defendants of their right to counsel and do not otherwise obtain knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waivers of counsel from hot check defendants.”

The lawsuit notes that a typical hearing in Hot Check Court lasts less than one or two minutes.