Contempt hearings ongoing

Published 12:15 am Friday, March 8, 2013

NATCHEZ — Six weeks after the Adams County Board of Supervisors instructed the justice court staff to work with judges to hold more contempt of court hearings, 33 contempt notices have been returned.

After Justice Court Clerk Audrey Bailey gave the supervisors an update Thursday on how the hearings have gone, the board authorized its attorney, Scott Slover, to work with the judges and chief clerk to outline policies and procedures to streamline contempt collection efforts.

Slover said those policies would include determining how to prioritize who to send contempt notices.

Email newsletter signup

“Part of those will include those who owe restitution and damages, and you will want to look at the more recent (cases) because you have a better chance of finding them.”

The contempt hearings are an attempt to recoup fines owed to the county that have gone uncollected. Justice Court Judge Charlie Vess previously has said the amount of uncollected fines could be as much as $3.84 million.

The judge had in the past maintained that he was not able to hold contempt hearings because the clerks’ office — which is answerable to the board of supervisors — did not schedule the hearings. The supervisors told Bailey in January to start scheduling the hearings.

Bailey told the board that in the first month of hearings, her office sent out 109 notices of contempt of court, of which 33 were returned.

Sixty-seven of the notices were not returned, two of the recipients had died, two were in a correctional work release program and one was in a nursing facility, Bailey said.

The clerk said four of those who returned contempt notices were put on partial payment plans by the judges.

Supervisor Mike Lazarus said when judges put defendants on partial payment programs, the judges should keep up with who owes what and when it is due. Circuit court judges do so, he said, and personally check to make sure payments are on time.

“I am not going to tell (the justice court judges) how to be a judge, but they need to be taking care of their business,” he said.

Slover said that for those who did not return their contempt notices, Bailey would present the judges with a bench warrant for that person that the judge could sign or not sign.

The clerk would keep a list of those bench warrants the judges refused to sign, Slover said.

“If the judge can sign or not sign, we find out right where the problem is,” Lazarus said. “If the judge doesn’t sign it, we need to find out why it is they aren’t signing it.”

Bailey said one problem her office faces when issuing contempt notices is that for older fines, many of the people who were cited have since moved. County Administrator Joe Murray said the county’s collection agency — Receivable Solutions Specialists — has software that can track down someone who has moved.

“Receivable Solutions needs to be communicating back to the county if they have found those residents,” he said.

The collection agency collects fines for the county at no cost to the county. Instead, those who pay their fines through RSS pay the fine and a processing fee. The supervisors speculated that some may have the money to pay the fine, but do not pay the fine because they do not have the money to pay both the fine and the processing fee.

Bailey said under the current arrangement, if someone walks into justice court wanting to pay their fine, she can’t accept it if the account has been turned over to RSS.

“If we collect, we are not going to collect for Receivable Solutions, we are going to collect for us,” she said. “If Receivable Solutions wants their 25 percent, they need to collect for themselves.

“I would rather take the money (from the person owing the fine) while they have it.”

The board instructed Slover to look into finding a way to allow the justice court clerk’s office to receive the funds.