Arkansas Cancer Patient Lee Robertson Jailed For Unpaid Bills

An Arkansas cancer patient was reportedly jailed for unpaid bills. After spending more than 30 days behind bars, 44-year-old Lee Robertson joined several other plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit claiming the city of Sherwood, Arkansas, is running a “modern-day debtors’ prison.”

As reported by the Huffington Post, Lee Robertson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009. While undergoing chemotherapy treatment, he reportedly wrote 11 checks, which totaled less than $200.

As Lee did not have enough money in his bank account to cover the checks, he was criminally charged with passing bad checks.

Over the next seven years, Robertson accrued more than $3,000 in court costs associated with the case. As he was unable to pay the bill, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail.

Although Lee Robertson’s sentence was ultimately reduced due to his participation in a work release program, the former inmate claims he was denied medication for his cancer and high blood pressure while he was incarcerated.

According to the class action federal rights lawsuit, which was filed by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Robertson is one of many victims of Sherwood’s “Hot Check Division.”

As stated on the City of Sherwood’s official website, the Sherwood District Court’s Hot Check Division is simply a division of the municipal court. However, it is promoted as a specific service to businesses, collection agencies, and individuals who receive bad checks. The city cites Arkansas Statute 5-37-302, which makes it a crime to write a check with insufficient funds.

Since its inception, the Hot Check Division reportedly issued more than 35,000 warrants and boasts an 85 percent collection rate. Although the service has benefited local businesses, collection agencies, and individuals, critics liken the process to debtors prison.

As explained by the Marshall Project, debtor’s prison is listed as a violation of civil rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, in the United States, thousands of people are jailed each year for unpaid bills.

A majority of those jailed for unpaid debt are charged with other crimes, including failure to appear, passing bad checks, and failure to comply with a court order. However, critics argue the charges are being used as a means to jail defendants whose only crime is not having enough money to pay their bills.

Critics of the system also argue that defendants are being charged court fees that well exceed their original debt.

Lee Robertson, for example, ended up with a bill exceeding $3,000 when his original debt was less than $200. According to reports, the court costs included bills from ProTrac, which is a private probation company utilized by the court. In Robertson’s case, ProTrac charged $35 per month.

Another defendant, Nikki Petree, was originally charged with passing a bad check that was less than $30. As a result, she was arrested a total of seven times and was eventually jailed for 26 days. According to reports, her final bill from the court exceeded $600.

Although Arkansas law prohibits writing bad checks, there are also laws in place to prevent courts from imposing outrageous court costs and fines on defendants who are unable to pay.

According to the class action lawsuit, the Sherwood District Court’s Hot Check Division, and other courts throughout the county, “have developed a policy of arresting, prosecuting and jailing people who can’t pay previous court costs, fines and fees” without considering the defendants’ financial means.

As reported by Arkansas Online, the lawsuit further alleges the defendants are not being told they have a right to legal counsel and are not provided with adequate legal representation when they do request counsel.

Lee Robertson said his experience with the Sherwood District Court’s Hot Check Division was specifically difficult because he was battling cancer while he was struggling to pay his bills. However, at this time his cancer is in remission.

[Image via BortN66/Shutterstock]

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