County loses major lawsuit over fees

JONESBORO, Ark. – Craighead County is about to have to pay back hundreds of thousands in fees unlawfully assessed in its courts after an injunction Wednesday afternoon.

In the case of Christopher Miles and all other similarly situated persons versus Craighead County, attorney Mark Rees successfully argued Wednesday Craighead County Circuit Court was unlawfully charging an $86 sheriff’s fee to everyone pleading guilty or found guilty in the court.

The suit, initially filed in 2012, saw several recusals and delays over conflicts before Judge David Laser made his decision Wednesday. Laser’s decision at the moment is only one affecting Rees’ client, Miles. Laser told attorney’s on both sides he intended to make a decision within the next 30 to 40 days on who would qualify as “similarly situated persons.”

In other words, who else the county owes money to.

Laser issued an injunction prohibiting the $86 sheriff’s fee from being charged to defendants going forward.

“The court is under the impression, to levy fines, there has to be constitutional authority in this,” Laser said. “No one claims to know what it’s for.”

However, the sheriff’s fee was not the only fee Laser decided was being wrongfully assessed. A $100 fee to appeal a case from district court to circuit court was also being unlawfully assessed, the judge said.

The judge said all of those affected from the date of the suit being filed, in 2012, going back for three years would be entitled to receiving the fee back.

“That ruling is the exact ruling that should have been made,” Rees said.

Rees had previously stated he believed the county was deliberately trying to mask the IMG_0570sheriff’s fees as court costs. Only on the itemized receipt did the $86 ever appear by itself as a “sheriff’s cost.” Every other document combined the $150 court costs and $86 into $236 in court costs – neglecting to mention the sheriff’s fee entirely when able.

Attorney Geoff Thompson with Rainwater, Holt, and Sexton, P.A. seemed to have little defense for the county’s assessment of these fees. Thompson tried using statute 21-6-307 as an excuse, which sets Arkansas sheriff’s department fees for serving writs, summons or other documents. Each of those fees are specified in the statute, however.

None of those fees mentioned related to the $86.

Brian G. Brooks, Esq., also arguing against the fees with Rees, countered Thompson’s defense.

“You can’t use a mandatory fee to do what you should have done somewhere else and that’s the argument I’m hearing,” Brooks said.

Another issue was how the money was used. None of the $86 sheriff’s fee actually ever went to the sheriff’s department, Rees’ deposition of county employees concluded. The court agreed there seemed to be no reason to call the fee a “sheriff’s cost.”

With a decision against the county and facing the potential of refunds in the territory of several hundred thousand dollars, Thompson then argued for the county, asking the judge to reconsider eligibility dating back three years from the 2012 filing date for who may be owed.

Thompson refused to comment to NEA Report.

From 2009 to 2015, Craighead County collected $391,583.38 in sheriff’s fees, according to county treasurer reports. During the same period, $124,898.76 in lower court fees were also collected by the county.

An employee at the treasurer’s office said some of those numbers could include revenue other than the fees outlined in Wednesday’s hearing, meaning the amount of money owed by the county could be less.

However, with over half a million dollars in revenue since 2009 now being considered questionable, the county could be paying several hundred thousand dollars back to its people.

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