Nikki Petree bounced a $28.93 check in 2011 by accident, but the Arkansas mom has been jailed six or seven times over the same check.
Petree, who has paid hundreds of dollars in court fines because of the check issue, has joined a federal class action lawsuit that was instigated by the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law over an alleged modern-day debtors' prison being run in Sherwood, Arkansas.
The lawsuit against city of Sherwood and Pulaski County states: "Through a labyrinthine -- and lucrative -- system, a single check for $15 returned for insufficient funds can be leveraged into many thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees owed to Sherwood and Pulaski County."
Sherwood District Court Judge Milas "Butch" Hale, who has sentenced people to jail over bounced checks/fines, including Petree, told The Associated Press via email: "We do not run a so called 'debtor's prison' in Sherwood. If a defendant pleads guilty, or is found guilty, of writing a hot check we set up a payment plan. It is only after the third or fourth time that they fail to comply with a court order that we incarcerate."
Petree recently told The Huffington Post that she was working for a hotel that paid her by direct deposit when she accidentally bounced the check under her mistaken belief the funds from her last payday with the employer would be in her account:
The last check that we’re talking about, it just kind of got away from me. I didn’t know that my check had not deposited when I had written the check. It’s such a simple mistake, really....
I think I’ve been to jail probably six, seven times over the same check. Every time I go to jail, they’d let me out immediately for $100. They’d turn around and add $600 or $700 more to my bond. I couldn’t afford to pay. I didn’t know what to do.
It got to the point where I couldn’t go nowhere. I’d have to look over my shoulder all the time, just worried that I was going to end up in jail over this.
Petree, whose last stint in jail was 35 days, described her latest court appearance in front of Hale:
Every time I went to court, we stood in line, we got our papers at the end of the line, we stood before him. Every time I went before him, they added $600, $700 to my fine.
This last time I went to court, he said, "How much money can you pay today?" I started to explain to him I’ve been in and out of the hospital two or three times in the past year. I offered community service, I offered weekends in jail, but before I could even get those two sentences out of my mouth, he sentenced me to 90 days in county jail, and he didn’t want to hear nothing from me.
He said, "I don’t want to hear that." He said, "You’re going to do a 90-day flat jail sentence" and pushed me on down the line. I was asking him, "Can I do weekends? Can I do service? Can I do ankle monitoring, anything?" He said, "No, ma’am." I was just in shock, because I did not see it coming.
Petree said she has more fines to pay: "As of right now, I still owe money. I still owe like $1,300. I’ve probably paid them $600, $700 over the timeframe. For a $28 hot check."
Lee Robertson, a cancer patient, who is also part of the class action lawsuit, was ordered jailed by Hale for 90 days for owing the court $3,054.51 in fines over 11 bounced checks ranging from $5 to $41, reported The Huffington Post.
Robertson bounced the checks while undergoing chemotherapy in late 2009 for his pancreatic cancer. The bounced checks totaled around $200.