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The Constitution still keeps the government at bay, but lets jerks get by


Eddie Wade, heading north from Fayetteville, was stopped at a roadblock, where he was arrested for driving drunk. The trial judge dismissed the charges, and the sheriff appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The dismissal was upheld. Not because Eddie Wade was sober, but because the Benton County Sheriff set up his roadblock in Washington County.

Eldon Bugg befriended an elderly woman at church and borrowed money from her, signing a promissory note. He created a false paper to show that his debt had been repaid. Her estate sued him for the debt and got a judgment. He refused to pay, though the court found that he had the ability to pay. Citing him for contempt of court, the judge ordered him to be locked up. The Missouri Court of Appeals ordered his release. As every American knows (or knew during the week that they studied the Constitution) the U. S. Constitution abolished imprisonment for debts.

These appellate decisions, handed down this week–Wade v. Benton County Sheriff and Estate of Downs v. Bugg show that constitutional principles are still at work to restrain sheriffs and judges from acting outside their powers to brand people as criminals or to take away their liberty. These opinions are short and worth reading.

Sometimes the government officials seem oblivious. The Benton County Sheriff knew the location of the county line and surely knew that his power to stop cars without probable cause extended only to Benton County. Roadblocks can be lawful. Because they tread on the constitutional protections against arrest without probable cause and unreasonable searches and seizures, roadblocks must follow rules.

The judge who sent Bugg to the clink was probably annoyed by Bugg’s apparently awful treatment of Laura Downs and his defiance of various court orders. But the judge crossed a line by jailing someone who failed to pay a private loan made between consenting adults. In contrast, failure to pay a debt that exists as a matter of law, such as a judgment to pay child support, can lawfully result in jail time as punishment.

We may think that Eddie Wade and Eldon Bugg behaved badly and should be punished. If sheriffs and judges aren’t held to constitutional limits, any of us could be locked up for doing anything that offended a sheriff, a  judge or another governmental official intoxicated with power.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

One response »

  1. Pingback: Was Bugg finally squashed? Did a federal judgment preclude state court litigation? « Ozarks Law & Economy

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