Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
By: Elizabeth Lyon
The Supreme Court recently decided to allow arrestees to bring civil rights actions against their arresting officers if their cases get dismissed. Hopefully, this will improve the deterrent effect that the threat of civil litigation is supposed to have against police misconduct. Up to this point, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has found that “civil lawsuits brought by individual victims of police misconduct have not deterred police misconduct or held police officers and their police departments accountable for their misconduct.”
Unfortunately, the Court’s 2022 decision in Thompson v. Clark offers no recourse for arrestees like Jacob Hodges – even though Mr. Hodges’ case was dismissed. Mr. Hodges was arrested on August 13, 2019, in Springdale, Arkansas, for obstructing government operations and refusal to submit to arrest, both misdemeanors. On the day of his hearing, the prosecuting attorney offered him a plea deal whereby Mr. Hodges would receive a reduced sentence if he pled guilty to at least one of the charges. Mr. Hodges, however, refused the plea deal. Instead, Mr. Hodges’ public defender showed the prosecutor the video of his arrest.
After the prosecutor watched the video, the City offered to drop all charges against Mr. Hodges. The Deputy City Attorney prepared a contract for Mr. Hodges to sign. In the contract, the City of Springdale offers to “ask the court for an Order of Nolle Prosequi” in Mr. Hodges’ case. In exchange, Mr. Hodges was to “release, acquit and forever discharge the City of Springdale from any and all claims, actions, rights, damages and/or compensation arising out of his interaction with law enforcement on or about August 13, 2019.” The contract also requires Mr. Hodges to “forfeit the firearm seized by Springdale Police Department on or about August 13, 2019.” To secure his freedom, Mr. Hodges signed the contract.
Is such a contract enforceable? Wouldn’t an innocent person be under a considerable amount of duress or undue influence if his only choices were to sign the contract or face criminal prosecution? This is one of the principal arguments against plea agreements. Nevertheless, plea bargains are “prevalent for practical reasons.” In theory, they reduce the severity of a guilty person’s punishment in exchange for increasing the efficiency of the judicial process.
However, Mr. Hodges’ contract with Springdale is not actually a plea agreement, because he did not plead guilty to any wrongdoing whatsoever. He did not take a lesser charge or a reduced sentence. He walked out of the courtroom with his innocence fully intact. However, in the process, the City stripped him of his right to sue the City of Springdale for how the officers treated him during his arrest. The City also kept his twelve-gauge shotgun that had been in the trunk of his car the night he was arrested.
For those readers who wish to read a fact-heavy version of this analysis, it is available here. For the purpose of this op-ed, though, here is a summary of the main points: The Arkansas legislature should amend the civil asset forfeiture statute to clarify that none of the exceptions to the felony conviction requirement allow police to ignore the legislature’s intent that civil asset forfeiture should not apply to innocent people or those charged with anything less than a felony. It is unjustifiable that a local government should be able to enrich itself through civil asset forfeiture by taking property from a person who – because they were never charged with a felony or even reasonably suspected of committing a felony – does not fall within the category of people contemplated by the statute.
Although plea agreements that reduce a person’s criminal charges or their sentence in exchange for waiving the right to a jury trial may be enforceable, Arkansas courts must not enforce any “plea agreement” that is signed by an innocent person in exchange for the government dropping all charges completely, since any such contract is inherently unconscionable in a judicial system where people are presumed innocent in the first place. If a person admits no guilt whatsoever, and the government has not established culpability by any other means, the government should have no capacity to restrict their rights. Silencing the voice of an innocent person who would otherwise have the right to prove they had been treated unjustly by the police defeats the purpose of the American justice system.