The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has reversed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed against a collection operation and its client — sheriffs in Oklahoma — that accused them of violating several sections of the Constitution and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by threatening the unlawful arrest and incarceration of impoverished individuals who are not able to pay their court fines.
A copy of the ruling in the case of Graff et al. v. Aberdeen Enterprises II et al. can be accessed by clicking here.
The collection operation defendant has a contract with the Oklahoma Sheriff’s Association to collect on court debts levied against individuals who are convicted of criminal or traffic offenses and are assessed fines and fees as part of their sentences. If those fines and fees are not paid to the court, the court clerk assigns the account to the collection operation. In order to induce a payment from the individual, the collection operation “begins repeatedly contacting the debtor and his or her family and threatening arrest,” even in situations “when it knows the debtor is too poor to pay,” according to the ruling. In many cases, the ruling indicates, the threats are effective. When the individual does not pay, the operation requests an arrest warrant for nonpayment, which are issued by judges without holding a hearing or giving the individual any opportunity to explain why he or she did not pay, which is required under state law in Oklahoma.
A District Court judge dismissed the suit under the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine, which states that individuals are not allowed to challenge state court decisions in federal court as a means of relitigating cases. The plaintiffs appealed the ruling to the Tenth Circuit.
But none of the claims made by the plaintiffs had anything to do with their original cases, the Appeals Court noted. Every one of the 10 counts challenged the debt collection practices that were commenced after the plaintiffs were convicted and sentenced.