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Does the punishment fit the crime? 

Hot Springs company files dozens of felonies over cable TV boxes.

click to enlarge AVOIDING A PENALTY: A man returns a cable box to Resort Cable in Hot Springs.
  • AVOIDING A PENALTY: A man returns a cable box to Resort Cable in Hot Springs.

Robert Sterling says he was a good customer to Resort Cable in Hot Springs, and had been for over 15 years. These days, however, he said he'll never use the company again after getting cuffed, fingerprinted and charged with a class C felony over what he insists is a misunderstanding over the return of a cable box.

An official with Resort Cable — part of WEHCO Media, which is headed by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman — said the company files charges that lead to around two dozen such felony warrants every month.

An Army vet who works as a commercial art consultant, Sterling said he's always kept a top-tier package with Resort, plus high-speed cable Internet when it came along. His bill routinely totaled upwards of $100 a month. Resort has been good to him in the past, too. In 2006, while his condo was being renovated, he called Resort Cable and said that he'd be moving temporarily, and that he wanted to suspend his cable service and keep the box to be re-installed when he moved back in. The company agreed, and when he moved back into his place, his cable came back on without a hitch.  He moved again in January of this year. He says he called, told Resort he would be moving and wanted to suspend service for awhile, and they agreed, never asking him to bring the cable box back. The only paper bill he had coming to his old residence was his cable bill, but since his service was suspended, Sterling said he never filed a mail forwarding card with the post office.

On June 1, Sterling went to the Garland County Courthouse to pay a traffic ticket. It was his sister's birthday, and she and her two daughters were waiting for him in the car outside.  The woman at the desk took his money for the ticket, then asked him to wait a moment. She returned with a plainclothes police officer.

"He said, Mr. Sterling, are you aware you have a warrant for your arrest?" Sterling said. "[I said] 'I just called yesterday and she said if I'd come in today everything would be fine,' and he said, 'No, it's from Resort Television Cable.'" Sterling was cuffed, then the officer walked him across the street to the jail, stopping at his sister's car to ask her to go make bail for him, which eventually cost $170.

"As he's walking me over to the jail, he said: 'Yeah, we issued a hundred of these warrants last week for the exact same thing,' " Sterling said. " 'All you have to do is get bonded out, return [the cable box], get a receipt, bring it to the judge on your court date and it'll get nolle prossed [dismissed]' ...  All the time the people who are fingerprinting me and taking my picture are cursing, actually using curse words, in regard to this cable company, saying it's ridiculous."

As soon as he bonded out, Sterling said he took his cable box back and got a receipt. At his July 30 court date, he says he tried to show it to the judge, only to be told that taking the box back after being arrested was the equivalent of "stealing a carton of milk, getting caught, then trying to pay for it." The judge told him he'd have to return for another court date, which Sterling said hasn't been set as of this writing.

With the possibility of a felony conviction, Sterling has retained a lawyer to represent him, to the tune of $1,500.  "I didn't steal anything," Sterling said. "I didn't return something in a timely manner. If there's a fine for that, that's fine. Should it be $1,670 dollars?"

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