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Lawsuit targets Arkansas hot-check court

By The Associated Press
This article was published February 6, 2018 at 9:49 a.m.

SHERWOOD, Ark. (AP) — A new federal lawsuit mirrors a 2016 suit that alleged a central Arkansas city and judge violated constitutional rights by effectively operating a debtor's prison with a court that imposed fines and jail time on people whose checks bounce.

The lawsuit was filed last week on behalf of Tamatrice Williams, who both lawsuits allege was subjected to unconstitutional practices for years in the Sherwood court, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .

The 2016 suit was settled in a November agreement that states the court will stop jailing people who can't afford to pay court fines imposed for bouncing a check. It also requires the court to review each defendant's ability to pay before determining a sentence.

U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr. had previously dismissed that lawsuit against the city of Sherwood and Judge Milas Hale, citing a doctrine that requires federal court to not exercise jurisdiction in state cases that have ongoing proceedings that can compromise state interests.

Some of the plaintiffs disputed they still had ongoing cases in state court as a result of hot-check charges filed years earlier that still had lingering payments due to fines imposed for failing to pay earlier fines.

The new lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages against the city for Williams, whose hot-check case is still considered ongoing in state court.

"Judge Moody's rulings were based on doctrines that do not apply to an individual such as Tammy Williams seeking monetary damages," said Mike Laux, an attorney for Williams.

The city denies any alleged wrongdoing, said Michael Mosley, an attorney for Sherwood.

"For nearly 20 years, Tammy William, a hard-working mother of five, was repeatedly harassed, threatened, arrested and jailed pursuant to an unconstitutional official policy at the city of Sherwood which turned nominal bounced checks in 1997 into thousands and thousands of dollars, padding its ill-gotten coffers on her back," Laux said. "It is only fair that Ms. Williams be reasonably compensated for this tragic upending of her life."

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