Blytheville wants definition of 'municipal prisoner'; plans to sue Mississippi Co. to get it

BLYTHEVILLE, AR (KAIT) – The Blytheville City Council plans to file a "friendly" lawsuit against Mississippi County that could impact cities and counties statewide.

Blytheville city attorney Mike Bearden referred to the lawsuit as friendly because the purpose of the action is to have a court clearly define the phrase "municipal prisoner," not to receive funds the county.

The city council authorized Municipal League attorney Michael Mosley to file the lawsuit.

"The lawsuit is going to be what's called an action for a declaratory judgment, which is a lawsuit filed by the City of Blytheville against Mississippi County as a result of the jail fee issues that we've been dealing with for several years," said Bearden.

"There's a law that says a municipal prisoner is a person who has been convicted of violating a city ordinance. City ordinances don't have jail time in them. So, if that's what a municipal prisoner is, the city would owe no jail fees because there's no ordinance that would require jail."

The lawsuit comes just months after the city and county agreed on a settlement fee of $709,370.27 for the 2011-2012 contract to house city inmates. The lawsuit would not affect the settlement agreement.

Bearden says Blytheville has not paid any jail fees to Mississippi County for 2013. "Beginning January of this year, we don't have a contract. So, we're not paying any jail fees right now," he said.

The court decision from this lawsuit will impact what Blytheville will owe the county beginning January 2013. According to Bearden, the city currently pays jail fees if people are convicted in Blytheville City Court.

"Right now, anyone who commits an offense in Blytheville that pleads guilty, or is found guilty for a traffic offense they didn't pay the fine for – they could be sent to jail for failing to appear. Domestic battery between a man and  a woman, they could be sent to jail. All those are misdemeanors prosecuted by a city attorney in city court. If they go to jail the city gets billed for it," Bearden said.

"If the court decided that a municipal prisoner was someone who violated a city ordinance, we would not pay jail fees for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor, traffic ticket, anything that's not an ordinance."

Bearden says the decision will set a precedent for cities and counties across the state.

"Undoubtedly, whoever loses will probably appeal it to the Supreme Court because it's a very important issue that would affect all the cities and counties that don't have their separate jails," Bearden said.

"I think the county believes the law is clear, and we don't. So, it's time to get a decision."

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