Lawsuit Challenges Statewide Extortion Scheme That Jails Impoverished Oklahomans, Nets Millions for a Private Company

February 2, 2018

Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection joins lawsuit on behalf of debtors subject to threats, arrest and jailing

TULSA – Oklahoma funds its court system and other public services through an unlawful statewide scheme to extort, arrest, and jail poor people subjected to exorbitant fees resulting from traffic, misdemeanor, and felony offenses, an expanded lawsuit filed late Thursday claims.

Two prominent public interest organizations – Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) – have joined the lawsuit first brought in November by two Tulsa attorneys, Dan Smolen and Jill Webb. The amended complaint alleges that the statewide Sheriffs’ Association, sheriffs of 54 Oklahoma counties, and a private, for-profit collection agency called Aberdeen Enterprizes II, Inc. arrest those too poor to pay their court debts and jail them without any inquiry into their ability to pay. The amended complaint also details the participation of county judges, court clerks, and cost administrators in this system.

“I love Oklahoma. It is my home, where I chose to stay and raise my family. But I don’t like the way our most vulnerable citizens are treated by the criminal legal system,” said Tulsa attorney Dan Smolen. “I don’t like seeing my state reduced to a bad parody of a Charles Dickens novel. We filed this lawsuit to fight back for those who have been marginalized and exploited by these shameful debt collection practices. We hope to take away the shackles of debt and fear that have plagued our clients for far too long.”

Plaintiffs in the amended complaint include a mother who receives food stamps who is so afraid of arrest for failure to pay a traffic ticket and subsequent fines that she leaves the house only to take her children to the bus stop.

Another plaintiff has lost visits with his son because he could not make child support payments on time while paying Aberdeen.

Another plaintiff lives in fear that her disabled adult son will be left without adequate care if she is arrested for failure to pay Aberdeen the $1,000 lump sum payment it demands – nearly twice the monthly disability benefit that is her sole income.

The suit seeks to establish class action status for thousands of others who have been subjected to extortionate debt collection practices and unlawful detention by the defendants.

“Officials across the state are running a massive enterprise to fund public services on the backs of poor Oklahomans who face threats, arrest and prolonged detention if they cannot pay escalating court fines and fees,” said attorney Elizabeth Rossi, of Civil Rights Corps. “This isn’t only wrong, and hurting families across the state – it’s unconstitutional.”

The Oklahoma scheme violates constitutional principles established by the Supreme Court that prohibit an individual from being jailed solely because she is too poor to pay court debts. Before a person may be deprived of her fundamental right to bodily liberty for nonpayment of court debt, the court must inquire about whether the failure to pay is willful or the result of indigence.

At least 10 separate fees are tacked on to the fines originally imposed for traffic and criminal offenses. These are designated to fund everything from “court costs” to the “Law Library” to county services such as hospitals and trauma centers. Moreover, the salaries and retirement benefits of judges in Oklahoma are paid for, in significant part, by revenue from the collection of court debts, the amended complaint says.

In 54 Oklahoma counties, without any inquiry into ability to pay, non-payment of court debt results in an arrest warrant being issued for that person and a debt collection referral to Aberdeen. A 30-percent penalty surcharge is then added to the debt, which Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association are authorized to keep once collected. The suit says that Aberdeen has brought in millions of dollars this way.

“In these counties, poor people – including many whose offenses are as minor as a traffic ticket – are repeatedly penalized for their poverty, coerced to pay for their own illegal treatment and trapped in a vicious cycle of debt, extortion and detention that is virtually impossible to escape,” said attorney Jill Webb.

For cases transferred to Aberdeen, the company uses the threat of arrest to coerce debtors to make an arbitrary lump sum payment in order to get the warrant lifted. Aberdeen routinely rejects requests to pay a lesser amount and instead pressures poor payers to forego basic necessities or beg from others to remain free. Aberdeen “has trained its employees through phone call scripts to threaten debtors by emphasizing the damaging consequences of arrest, including separation from children and other family as well as loss of employment,” the amended complaint says. “If Aberdeen, Inc. has access to the debtor’s family or friends, it calls them to demand payment and threaten harmful consequences of their loved one’s arrest.”

According to the amended complaint, sheriffs act as the enforcers of the extortion scheme by arresting debtors for whom unlawful warrants have been issued and, in many counties, holding them for days before they are ever allowed to see a judge. Throughout the process, court debts continue to grow through the imposition of additional penalties such as fees for each arrest warrant, a fee for executing an arrest warrant, and daily fees for being confined in jail, the complaint says.

“The Supreme Court found debtors’ prisons unconstitutional long ago, but Oklahoma officials and their for-profit collection agency flagrantly disregard the law,” said Mary McCord, senior litigator at ICAP and a professor at Georgetown Law. “They’re part of a system designed to squeeze every dollar it can out of the poor. It’s time for the federal courts to put an end to this illegal scheme.”

The suit calls for declaratory and injunctive relief to prohibit the unconstitutional practices, and money damages under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and federal tort law.

Also filed late Thursday was a motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeking to prevent the arrest of two of the lawsuit’s indigent named plaintiffs with outstanding debt-collection arrest warrants. The warrants were obtained in Tulsa and Rogers counties without any inquiry into the plaintiffs’ ability to pay or finding that their nonpayment was willful.

View the amended complaint here.