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Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law and Co-Counsel File Lawsuit to End Unconstitutional Jailing of Poor Defendants in White County Court

Lawsuit seeks to ensure Arkansas residents will not be locked up for court debt they cannot afford to pay

Little Rock, Ark - 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.”[1]

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.”  

A copy of the complaint is available [here]

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The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers' Committee is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice under law.

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