By Floyd Ingram
OKOLONA – To say some people in Chickasaw County need to pay their debt to society is a little bit of an understatement.
The Chickasaw County Board of Supervisors were presented numbers from unpaid Justice Court fines and fees last week with more than $1.8 million currently due the county.
The list, presented to the Board of Supervisors, contained names of those already convicted in Okolona and Houston justice court districts and covered 60 pages.
“That’s a lot of money,” said District 3 Supervisor Russell Brooks. “If we could get some of that we might be able to fix roads and things around here.”
Current figures have $825,754.27 in unpaid fines due in Houston Justice Court and $1,058,518.96 in unpaid fines due in Okolona Justice Court.
“If you arrested people and locked them up they might find a way to pay that fine,” said Chickasaw County Sheriff Jimmy Simmons. “But constables are elected and if they are not wanting to serve (those warrants) you can’t do much.”
Board of Supervisors President Jerry Hall said the county turns many of those fines and fees over to Mississippi Warrant Network, a business that charges a fee on fines they collect. The service basically makes a telephone call seeking payment for old fines and even garbage fees.
The current justice-court-to-constable-to-county system of paying fines has several weak spots.
Judges can only fine offenders and sentence them to jail upon conviction and they are not responsible for collecting old fines or serving warrants or arresting those who fail to pay. Constables can only execute the warrants and papers that are presented to them and signed by a judge. Both constables and justice court judges are freely elected and don’t answer directly to the County Board of Supervisors.
“I try to work with people and I don’t want to lock someone up that has a job and then they lose their job,” said Houston Constable Billy Voyles. “I will say people who owe fines know they owe fines and they need to work with the judge to make payments.”
Voyles said one of the main ways old fines get paid are when the debtor rolls up to a highway safety checkpoint and has their driver’s license run by officers running the roadblock. Voyles said a lot of old fines get paid when police and deputies make a routine traffic stop, too.
“It’s too late then and we do carry them to jail at that point, if they can’t pay the fine they owe,” Voyles said. “Like I said, people know if they have an unpaid ticket and they need to tend to business before they get stopped.”
Judges can look at their unpaid fine list and issue bench warrants for contempt of court to those with unpaid fines. Constables are then charged with issuing those new warrants and the offender has to pay additional court costs, constable fees and can be jailed by the judge when they are hauled into court the second time.
Chickasaw County has fines and fees on its books going back to 2002.
Houlka’s Board of Aldermen recently asked Houlka Police Chief Ray Laney to send letters to those owing fines in Houlka Municipal Court.
With the state’s reduction of inmates serving time in county jails, many counties are looking harder at unpaid fines and putting people in jail and letting them work off fines in county-monitored work programs.
In 2005 Pontotoc and Monroe counties collected more than $200,000 in delinquent fines and court fees with special sessions of circuit court aimed solely at finding and arresting those with significant fines.
Monroe County collected $117,703.32 in old debts and Pontotoc County raised $91,456.
In Monroe County, all defendants owing money to the county were summoned to explain why they had not paid. Police departments in Amory and Aberdeen, as well as the sheriff’s department and probation and parole officers, served process on these cases.
Pontotoc collected $150,000 a year earlier using the same process.
Anyone wanting to know if they owe a fine can all the First District Justice Court Office in Houston at 456-2878 or the Second District Justice Court Office in Okolona at 447-3402 during regular business hours.