by Derek Gilna
A federal lawsuit was filed in November 2017 against every sheriff in the state of Oklahoma, along with judges, court officials and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, challenging a scheme that turned unpaid court fees and fines into a collection “extortion” racket. Most of the people targeted by the scheme were poor criminal defendants who, as a result of their poverty, often ended up in jail due to their inability to pay. The suit seeks class-action status and the class members could number in the tens of thousands.
The complaint was filed in Tulsa, Oklahoma by seven plaintiffs including Ira Lee Wilkins, who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge in 2015 and failed to pay court costs. A bench warrant was issued; he was arrested and sent to state prison.
Wilkins and other people convicted of criminal offenses, his attorneys said, “are victims of an extortion scheme in which the defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible ... through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior.” Dan Smolen, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, added, “In the United States of America you can’t put people in jail because they’re too poor, and that’s what’s happening here.”
Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc., a private collections company named as a defendant in the case, is responsible for what the plaintiffs claim are violations of their rights and acts of corruption when collecting unpaid court costs and fines. Aberdeen has an exclusive contract with the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, which it has used to threaten defendants with jail for non-payment of their fees and costs.
According to Smolen, “not only are they putting them in jail because they can’t pay it, they’re taking active steps to make it more difficult for the indigent to get out of this cycle.” Unfortunately, he said, state courts are not holding required hearings to determine whether defendants have the ability to pay. Aberdeen routinely adds a 30 percent markup on unpaid fines and courts costs, and if defendants are unable to pay the company can set in motion automatic driver’s license suspensions.
The whole process is counterproductive, Smolen noted. “So if they can’t get to work ... then they can’t earn the money and they lose their job and they are back in custody.... Simply putting somebody back into custody because they don’t have the money to pay for it is not only detrimental to the poor, I think it’s detrimental to the taxpayers who are having to pay to incarcerate them simply because they are too poor to pay court costs or a fine.”
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association receives a portion of the funds collected by Aberdeen, and made over $825,000 from its contract with the company in 2016 alone. According to The Oklahoman, the Sheriffs’ Association has received millions of dollars from the contract and spent that money on a new building, travel expenses, advertising and lobbyists. Neither Aberdeen nor any official from the Sheriffs’ Association provided comments on the pending class-action lawsuit.
Originally filed by Smolen and attorney Jill Webb, the plaintiffs are now also represented by the Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection. See: Graff v. Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc., U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:17-cv-00606-CVE-JFJ.
Sources: www.tulsaworld.com, www.revealnews.org
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login
Related legal case
Graff v. Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc.
|U.S.D.C. (N.D. Okla.), Case No. 4:17-cv-00606-CVE-JFJ