New lawsuit on 'debtor prison' practices in White County UPDATE | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, August 9, 2018

New lawsuit on 'debtor prison' practices in White County UPDATE

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2018 at 12:54 PM

click to enlarge JUDGE MARK DERRICK: Sued over court practices. - BAD GOVERNMENT IN ARKANSAS BLOG
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  • JUDGE MARK DERRICK: Sued over court practices.
A legal group has filed another lawsuit on sentencing practices in White County District Judge Mark Derrick's court that it says amount to unconstitutional debtors' prison. He ran for office in 2016 boasting of the high fines he'd impose and, according to the suit, jails people for failure to pay without assessing their ability to pay.

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights had said early today it would file a class action lawsuit over practices. An afternoon news conference included remarks from poor people who've been harmed by the practices. Said a release:

The Judge: Routinely sentences individuals for failure to pay twice as much jail time as those convicted of most serious misdemeanors; disregards state law requirement to offer or appoint a defense attorney; Routinely orders the suspension of driver’s license for missed payments; requires a minimum of $100 month payments for court fees without an assessment of ability to pay, in violation of the 14th Amendment.

Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The same group worked with the ACLU on a similar case in Sherwood's hot check court in Pulaski County. The case produced a settlement that included a number of changes in practices on handling cases in that court.

UPDATE: Here's the lawsuit, filed in Pulaski County circuit court.  It names White County District Judge Mark Derrick of Beebe. (He's appeared in these pages before after being attacked on his farm by his own zebra.)

Further details from the lawyers' committee:

Acting on behalf of thousands of individuals threatened with jail for nonpayment of court-ordered debt, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (Lawyers’ Committee), Venable LLP, and Shults & Adams LLP filed a lawsuit today alleging that Arkansas District Court Judge Mark Derrick routinely jails poor people for nonpayment of court-imposed fines and fees, and automatically suspends driver’s licenses in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. The complaint, filed in the Pulaski County Circuit Court, seeks declaratory relief. It further alleges that Judge Derrick’s policies requiring individuals to make $100 monthly payments without consideration of their ability to pay, and failing to promptly consider attorney appointment for indigent defendants, violate Arkansas law.

“The residents of White County have long-suffered under Judge Derrick’s systematic and oppressive collections policies, which have unjustly punished defendants who are too poor to pay,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “There is no question that this court’s hostile, unconstitutional and illegal policies and practices contribute to a justice system that criminalizes poverty. Court fines and fees have a stark impact on African Americans and poor people who are often subject to jail time and driver's license suspension merely for failure to pay. These schemes have a particularly deleterious impact on families, who are often forced to draw from their own limited finances to pay court-imposed debt to secure the liberty of their loved ones.”

In the lawsuit, the Lawyers’ Committee and co-counsel contend that Judge Derrick operates a “zero tolerance” collections policy whereby defendants, often denied the right to counsel and basic due process protections, who miss a payment are arrested on warrants attached to fixed-money bails. This policy results in the jailing of hundreds of poor Arkansans each year—often for 30 days at a time—for nonpayment of court-ordered debt, and without any consideration of their ability to pay. Additionally, the complaint alleges that Derrick routinely orders defendants’ driver’s licenses suspended, without due process, whenever they are called and do not appear in his courtroom.

Individuals who cannot afford to pay their way out become trapped in a years-long spiral of ever-increasing debt and detention. One plaintiff, Nikita Mahoney, lost custody of her children in July 2017 when both she and her husband were jailed in White County on contempt warrants issued by Judge Derrick. “I kept telling the court that I have babies to take care of at home, and they kept telling me I can’t use my kids as an excuse,” said Mahoney. “My kids are not an excuse.”

Judge Derrick, who was re-elected to the court in 2016, distinguished himself from his opponent by running on the promise to impose high fines and fees. He explained, “I know my fines are a lot higher...I try to hammer them at the front end and make them want to change, then I give them incentive.”

The six named plaintiffs seek to represent all individuals who owe or will owe debt as a result of conviction in Judge Derrick’s courts. This group or “class” of persons includes tens of thousands of individuals. “The practices described in the complaint have created a modern-day debtors’ prison in White County,” said Venable partner Edward Boyle, co-chair of the firm’s Class Action Defense Group, and co-counsel on this matter. “With the fine lawyers at the Lawyers’ Committee and Shults & Adams, we aim to put an end to these illegal practices.” 
I've left a phone message at Derrick's office seeking comment. The case was initially assigned to Judge Alice Gray.

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