According to the federal court filing of last week, “These plaintiffs are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from indigent people through a pattern of illegal and unconscionable behavior.”
In Oklahoma, those owing court fees are assigned to Aberdeen Enterprizes. On top of the fees, Aberdeen adds 30 percent. If the amount goes unpaid, Aberdeen gets a warrant for the debtor’s arrest. The practice has been profitable for both Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, which earned in excess of $800,000 in 2015 alone. The federal lawsuit, filed on November 2, argues that Oklahomans are being dragged into modern-day debtors prisons.
"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 attorney Dan Smolen, according to the Tulsa World, The lawsuit alleges that contract between Aberdeen and the OSA violates federal anti-racketeering statutes as well as other civil rights laws. "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.
The lawsuit accuses Aberdeen of gathering court debts in criminal cases by extorting money from the poor while threatening them with jail if they don't pay up. going to the jail if they don't comply.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Ira Lee Wilkins, a man who had served his time in state prison but is back behind bars because he could not pay his court fees and associated costs.
The plaintiffs cite that a homeless man, who is on disability, was arrested on retail larceny and trespassing charges on New Year’s Eve 2016. He did not have $150 to make bail. After pleading guilty to two misdemeanors, he was hit with $425 in fines and fees, plus $385 in “hidden costs” and totaled more than $800 and more than his monthly disability payment. And when the case was given to Aberdeen, his debt spiked by 30 percent. The lawsuit alleges,
“Plaintiff was given a letter to sign, not by the court or an attorney, but by a sheriff’s officer at the jail acknowledging his ‘debt’ to Aberdeen.”
Aberdeen was founded by a disbarred bankruptcy lawyer -- Jim Shofner -- who served prison time after admitting he helped a client hide over $100,000 from the IRS under a pseudonym. According to The Daily Beast, he said that he is retired from Aberdeen.
Debtors can go to jail if they do not pay up. Aberdeen contacts the debtor by phone or mail, informing them of the arrest warrant if the debt is not satisfied. Last year, “failure to pay” was the fourth most common cause of incarceration in Oklahoma. According to the suit, 1,163 Oklahomans booked into jail for that reason. According to The Daily Beast, Oklahoma has approximately 45,000 open “failure to pay” warrants. Debtors can also face losing their driver's license.
The arrangement between Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association is profitable for both. OSA is a nonprofit that trains and coordinates the 77 sheriff’s departments in Oklahoma. Their contract gives a portion of Aberdeen’s takings. According to OSA’s tax filings, the group earns over $500,000 annually. According to The Daily Beast, OSA earned over $761,000 in 2016 from its “warrants and collections program,” therefore constituting 65.9 percent of OSA’s revenue. In 2015, OSA earned more than $829,000 from the warrants program. This can be compared to the $270,000 OSA earned in 2009, which was the year before the group signed the deal with Aberdeen.
The current OSA president is Sheriff Mike Waters of Pawnee County.