by Chuck Sharman
On March 13, 2023, an attorney in Missouri’s Iron County helped a 64-year-old resident file a pro se motion in court, asking for an indigency hearing she never got before being ordered to pay restitution for letting her dog off-leash. When she couldn’t pay, Lori Ann Stuehmeyer was jailed for three days.
Her case was the second in the same month to shine a spotlight on the rural county, whose population is less than 10,000, after its jail was shuttered when its sheriff and two deputies were arrested in a kidnapping plot.
Stuehmeyer’s troubles date to May 2021, when she let her seven-year-old pit-bull mix run free in a park. The dog had some uncertain interaction with a child – no evidence of a bite was ever presented – and the child’s mother called cops from Ironton, the county seat. Stuehmeyer was cited for having an “animal at large.”
It was the first blemish on her otherwise spotless record. Nevertheless, three months later, after pleading guilty, she was sentenced to a three-day jail term. But Judge Scott Shrum of the state’s 42ndJudicial Circuit Court suspended that, provided she pay $2,700 within the next nine months in fines, fees and restitution to the child’s mother for medical bills and lost wages.
With a monthly fixed income of $892, Stuehmeyer made little progress toward repayment. So she was jailed – like thousands of Americans put behind bars every day for being too poor to pay costs that a court assessed them.
After Stuehmeyer’s release, the child’s mother filed a civil suit to collect what she was owed. Stuehmeyer decided to file bankruptcy and visited attorney Kenneth Seufert in the nearby and somewhat larger town of Farmington. He found a number of problems with her case.
First, there was nothing in the “animal at large” ordinance that provided for court-assessed restitution. There was also nothing in the case docket that indicated Shrum advised Stuehmeyer of her right to counsel, including appointed counsel if she couldn’t afford her own. Nor did the judge conduct an ability-to-pay hearing before assessing fines, fees and restitution. As the attorney reminded the judge, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660, 103 S. Ct. 2064 (1983), that sending someone to jail because she can’t afford court-imposed costs is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
“I didn’t have any idea that I had those rights,” Stuehmeyer said.
With the attorney’s help, she then filed her pro se motion for an indigency hearing to determine what she owes, if anything. See: Ironton v. Steuhmeyer, Mo. Cir. (Iron Cty.), Case No. 190961574.
After her stint in the Iron County Jail, Stuehmeyer said she was so horrified by the food that she has returned several times with fresh fruit when she can afford to buy it for those held in the lockup’s 10 beds.
Those beds were emptied in March 2023 and detainees shipped to the jail in nearby Washington County – where Iron County Sheriff Jeff Burkett and two deputies are being held on bail they also apparently can’t afford. Along with a co-defendant, local rancher Donald Rickie Gaston, 62, they were arrested on March 16, 2023, after the Sheriff and his deputies allegedly made a false 911 report the month that Gaston’s estranged partner had kidnapped their child. They are also accused of abusing their access to cellphone information to track down the woman.
Meanwhile, the Iron County Jail was closed on March 17, 2023, and its two staffers were fired. County coroner Tim Harbison took over the Sheriff’s department, bringing former deputy Greg Hitchings out of semi-retirement to run day-to-day operations.
Additional source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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