Questions remain on repayment of Craighead County fees

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JONESBORO, Ark. – Circuit Judge David Laser made it clear Tuesday morning Craighead County Circuit Court had imposed fees which were not legal.

“I don’t think there’s a good argument that these exactions were legal,” Laser said in room 4B at the Craighead County Courthouse Annex Tuesday.

However, questions remained about the repayment of the fees, including the question of if the county will have to repay the fees – at all.

The fees in question are both the $86 sheriff’s fee for pleas in circuit court and a $100 appeal fee for appealing cases from district to circuit court, both of which a judgment was issued against in June. Read the full background here.

The reasoning behind questions on repayment is that Laser’s order, he said, can not put Craighead County into a deficit. State, county and city governments in Arkansas are not allowed to go into a deficit, per law, and Laser was hesitant to issue a ruling until he was presented with methods of compensation for those affected by the fees.

sheriffsfeesThe lawsuit of Christopher Miles and all other similarly situated persons versus Craighead County was filed by attorney Mark Rees of Jonesboro in 2012. With a three year statute of limitations, this means the fees which are potentially recoverable go back to 2009. But it isn’t just a three year period the lawsuit would possibly force the county to repay.

After the suit was filed in 2012, improper sheriff’s fees and lower-court appeal fees were assessed in Craighead County court, still, until June 29 of this year, when Laser ruled against the county in the illegal exaction suit.

At the time of the ruling, the only interested party was Miles. Tuesday’s hearing was to clarify who else would be the interested parties in the suit and if it would achieve class action status. Once again, attorneys for both sides argued in court.

Attorney Jason Owens with Rainwater, Holt & Sexton, P.A., on behalf of Craighead County, argued because it was never challenged by any of the defendants in court, they should not now have a right to come back and change their minds. Owens also argued the plaintiffs should be banned from collecting money because it was already spent by the county. It was one of his primary focuses and it concerned the judge.

“If all the money’s spent, where do you come up with the money to pay these claims,” Laser asked. “Shoulda, woulda coulda, but they still must have the money to pay this.”

Owens also argued that the county instead reopen all of the criminal cases of those affected and make their complaint against the circuit courts and not the county. He said it would be like someone suing a school district for a property tax mistake.

Owens also argued no one was properly notified of an illegal fee being charged, which is why the county continued collecting it.

Responding for the defendants was Brian G. Brooks, Esq., assisting Rees in the suit. He said the county was notified they were doing something wrong in 2012, with the filing of the initial lawsuit, but they continued for years.

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Brooks

Brooks also said it couldn’t be known if the fee was never challenged by defendant, because it wasn’t a matter of record. In addition, he brought up the point that defendants are not of the ability to dictate what they will and won’t pay to prosecutors in a negotiation for a plea arrangement, when even a slightly offensive reply could result in one’s own freedom being at stake.

Brooks also took aim at the suggestion that the county not be liable because they had spent the money. After the proceeding, Rees said the suggestion would basically give a free pass to any government entity to collect whatever they wanted, as long as they spent it.

“It doesn’t make much sense if the county can obtain funds that are illegal and then say they are not responsible because they have spent the money,” Rees said. “I don’t believe that is what the law says. In other words, it becomes a wrong with no consequence.”

Laser agreed the fee was wrong but commented on the difficulty of his predicament.

“I think the assessment was wrong,” Laser said. “The exaction was illegal. It would be a lot easier if we were dealing with a private entity.”

The question Laser faced was not if he should – but if he could.

“You almost have to order it prospectively – a little each year,” Laser said.

But no final determination was made Tuesday. Instead, the judge asked the attorneys to come back with plans on how to resolve the issue without putting the county into a deficit. The judge said they would examine the matter once again in 45 days.

Once that decision is made, the county may appeal the decision.

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Photos and story by Stan Morris

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