Appeals court reverses decision on ‘sheriff’s fees’; State Supreme Court may still decide

Appeals court finds fees were illegally collected from defendants in Craighead County

The decade-long legal battle over “sheriff’s fees” in Craighead County continued this week with an appeals court reversing a lower court decision. But the case could go before the Arkansas Supreme Court before it’s all done.

Judge Stephanie Potter Barrett authored the ruling issued Wednesday from the Arkansas Court of Appeals District IV, a majority opinion with dissent from judge Waymond M. Brown. The courts ruling read as followed:

“The Craighead County Circuit Court refused to hold the assessment of subject fees constituted an illegal exaction, and that the fees and costs paid were made voluntarily, and that refunds were not available, and it dismissed the case with prejudice. From that order comes this appeal. We hold that the assessment and collection of fees and costs not authorized by law does constitute an illegal exaction and that the fees were not voluntarily paid. Therefore, we reverse and remand.”

Jonesboro attorney Mark Rees, who has spearheaded the effort since taking the case in 2012, was pleased with the decision.

“This day has been a long time in the making, and I am glad that the Court of Appeals has agreed with me and overturned the trial court’s decision,” Rees said. “The Court of Appeal’s decision shows that government cannot illegally place a tax on the backs of some of the least among us in society without being called out and held accountable. Justice is finally being served.”

The fees in question date back to the 1960s. Defendants in Craighead County court would be assessed an $86 fee labeled on some reports as a “sheriff’s cost.” But fees can’t be assessed without law specifically allowing it and for this fee, no such laws existed. The precise origin has been difficult to track but the money did not appear to go to or even involve the sheriff’s department. A $100 fee to appeal a case from district court to circuit court was also being unlawfully assessed, Craighead County Circuit Judge David Laser ruled in 2016. That court stopped short of holding the county liable for the illegal fees.

Parties argue before Judge David Laser regarding sheriff’s fees. Photo taken in 2016.

However, the decision on Wednesday opens the door again for those who paid the fees to have some sort of restitution. 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. 

The case will now be appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The state supreme court may decide not to hear the case. If that’s their decision, the ruling of the appeals court would stand.

“ … the Rees Law Firm will always advocate for the common man and hold government officials accountable when necessary,” Rees said. 

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