A debt-collection system in Oklahoma that routinely throws indigent people in jail for failing to pay state court fines and costs is illegal and amounts to an extortion scheme, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tulsa by two Tulsa-based law firms, seeks class-action status on behalf of indigent criminal defendants who “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.”
The lawsuit names the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, every Oklahoma county sheriff and Aberdeen Enterprizes II Inc., a private collections company.
“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,” said Dan Smolen, one of the attorneys initiating the lawsuit filed on behalf of indigent defendants in criminal cases.
The lawsuit alleges constitutional violations and corruption in the collection of unpaid court fines and costs imposed on indigent defendants in criminal cases via a contract between Aberdeen Enterprizes and the Sheriffs’ Association, the latter of which acts as an administrator for all 77 county sheriffs.
Aberdeen Enterprizes conspires to collect court debts in criminal cases by extorting money from impoverished individuals, threatening them with jail if they don’t pay, according to the lawsuit.
“And 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,” Smolen said, referring to the defendants.
Courts are failing to conduct required hearings to determine whether a person is indigent and can’t afford to pay his or her fines and court costs, Smolen said.
Those referred to Aberdeen face a 30 percent markup in what they owe and automatic driver’s license suspensions, Smolen said.
“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,” he said.
Smolen said the arrangement between the Sheriffs’ Association and Aberdeen Enterprizes began after 2009. In one year, 2015, the Sheriffs’ Association made over $829,075 from its contract with Aberdeen, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ira Lee Wilkins, who is described as an indigent Tulsa man who was represented by the public defender’s office when he pleaded guilty to an unnamed charge in 2015.
A bench warrant was issued about a year later for Wilkins’ arrest after he failed to pay court costs. He is now in a state prison, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit alleges the collections contract between Aberdeen Enterprizes and the Sheriff’s Association violates anti-racketeering statutes as well as other civil rights violations.
“Simply putting somebody back in to 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,” Smolen said.
Rob Shofner, with Aberdeen Enterprizes, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association also could not be reached for comment.