LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A central Arkansas city and judge are denying a lawsuit’s claims that they’re effectively operating a debtors’ prison with a court that has imposed hefty fines and jail time on thousands of people whose checks bounce.

Attorneys for Sherwood and District Court Judge Milas “Butch” Hale III on Wednesday denied the claims in the lawsuit accusing them of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of residents through the prosecution of hot check cases. The lawsuit was filed in federal court last month by The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on behalf of four people who were jailed and a Sherwood resident who is challenging the practice as a misuse of taxpayer funds.

“Separate Defendants specifically deny that they had anything to do with the creation or maintenance of any ‘debtor’s prison’ and any other wrongdoing plaintiffs imply separate defendants partook in,” attorneys for Hale and the city said in Wednesday’s filing.

The groups’ lawsuit claimed that the hot check court issues an arrest warrant each time a person fails to make a payment, regardless of their ability to pay, and uses each warrant as an opportunity to assess more fines and fees against the individual.

The city and judge said the claim they’ve misspent tax money should be dismissed. They also accused the plaintiffs of attempting “an impermissible collateral attack on their criminal convictions.”

“Plaintiffs are required to appeal their convictions if they believe their sentences are unlawful and argue the same in said appeal,” they said in Wednesday’s filing.

The groups suing have said the hot check court practice is part of a nationwide problem of poor defendants being jailed for not paying fines and fees they could never afford, an issue that was highlighted in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014.


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