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Decades later, bills come: Dodge County court collecting dues up to 24 years old

Many thought it was a scam. It's not.
Posted at 5:58 PM, Sep 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-02 19:28:42-04

FREMONT, Neb. (KMTV) — Fremont resident Rod Poole had heard it was happening to others in town.

But despite his history in the Dodge County District Court, it didn't occur to him he might get a letter, too.

Then they came.

"Failure to resolve this matter by the deadline may lead to a show cause hearing being brought against you," the letters say.

One letter was about a case that entered the Dodge County District Court on June 12, 1998, but the most recent action in an online court log is more recent: Aug. 11, 2021.

That's the day the court sent a letter to him giving him a deadline of Dec. 1, 2021, to pay $75.57 in court costs from the case. With it was another letter from a 2008 case in which he owes another $139.29.

"Who saves receipts 23 years?" asked Poole, who doesn't trust the court's records are accurate after so much time.

There's nearly $196,000 in outstanding costs from about 770 cases, said Dodge County Clerk of District Court Linda Nelson said. About $85,000 of that originated earlier than 2010.

In 1997, like other courts across the state, the Dodge County District Court began using an online program called Justice to keep court information, said Nelson, an elected official.

That's the system she's using to collect on those who still owe court costs or fines to the Dodge County District Court, so she's sent letters for cases dating back to 1997.

"(As) the amount of money due to Dodge County continued to grow over the years, Judge Hall and I had discussed the possibility of sending out notices of payment due. We thought we would try it and see how it worked," Nelson wrote to 3 News Now Investigators.

They started at the beginning of the year and have collected about $24,000 so far.

She pulled names from a list at random and looked for current addresses, Nelson said.

She said it's a small office with only three people working full time. Collecting dues is not part of their day-to-day duties.

"All I can say is I'm already paying for my addictions just in the past with my health," said Poole, who was convicted of drug-related charges during the cases. "I'm on disability now, and there ain't going to be no way I'm able to pay this."

Nelson said failure to collect can put a financial burden on the county. She says the county must front most court costs to the state. When the county is paid, they are often getting reimbursed by the person who owed the court costs. She also says fines usually go to the county, too.

"You know, people have a past. And when you put it back there, you just want it to stay there," said Cassie Burt, whose husband Justin also received two letters, for cases in 1998 and 2003, totaling $221.33.

"It's kind of sad that it's coming up again...Now we're adults with kids and pay our bills. And we would've paid had we known."

Poole and another individual who received two letters, Pete Stoll, argued the costs must've been paid because each were released from parole. But Nelson says if parole officers are checking for that, they don't call her office to do so. Probation officers do check for unpaid costs and fines before releasing someone, but parole is not probation, and Nelson says neither were on probation.

Danielle Conrad, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska, says this is an example of why the ACLU is concerned about "taxation by citation." She says the local and state governments are too reliant on money obtained from citations, fines and court costs.

Conrad also wants people to know they are entitled to a hearing on their ability to pay.

Nelson wants people to reach out to her if they are unable to pay. She said one individual is paying about $25 a month for the next two years.

Patrick Borchers, a professor and former dean at the Creighton School of Law, says people should pay if they can. The costs and fines don't have an expiration date and aren't subject to any statute of limitations.

"Probably should've got on this without waiting a quarter-century or so," he said.

People could be jailed if they ignore the letter and don't attend a hearing called for that reason, Borchers said. But he said it's unlikely the court would pursue that because of the cost of doing so.

While Burt and others say they'll pay, people like Stoll say they won't. Stoll says he knows he already paid the nearly $1,100 combined between two cases from 2000 and 2007, but threw out the receipts.

"You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip. I'm not going to Dodge County. They can kiss my grits. I don't care," Stoll said.

He says he has many reasons from his past not to trust the county.

Stoll wrote the county to inform them he wouldn't pay. After that, and after our interview, he was called to appear in court regarding the 2000 and 2007 cases on Sept. 10. He says he'll be there.

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