Southern District OKs Lengthy Sentence for ‘Board Bills’ Defendant

The Court of Appeals Southern District ruled June 30 that a judge didn’t abuse his discretion in sentencing a high-profile but low-income defendant to more than two years in jail on a variety of charges.

George Richey had argued on appeal that St. Clair County Associate Circuit Judge Jerry J. Rellihan entered the hefty sentence in retaliation for Richey’s role in a landmark 2019 ruling that forbade local courts from imposing jail “board bills” as court costs.

In State v. Richey, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unanimously that, while counties can charge criminal defendants for the costs of their incarceration, circuit courts have no statutory authority to impose board bills as courts costs. Instead, counties must use a separate process to recover the money. As a result, defendants can’t be brought back into court monthly to review their payments for that debt, nor can the court put them back in jail for failure to pay it.

Six months before the March 2019 ruling, Richey had been arrested on separate charges of drunkenly threatening his neighbors. The following June, Rellihan acquitted Richey of the most serious of the three misdemeanors he faced and sentenced him to 180 days and 15 days on the remaining two charges.

Rellihan also revoked Richey’s probation for three unrelated convictions and ordered him to serve all of his sentences consecutively, totaling 755 days in jail.

Jedd C. Schneider, a public defender representing Richey, argued on appeal that Richey’s stiff sentence was imposed “because he dared to challenge being jailed for debt.” Schneider estimated that Richey would accrue $26,425 in jail board debt during this sentence, an amount he will be “unlikely to ever repay . . . during his lifetime.”

“Did the trial court learn nothing from the Supreme Court’s Richey opinion?” Schneider wrote in a brief. “The answer is seemingly no.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which defended the case on appeal, argued that Richey’s two new sentences were within the allowable range of punishment and that setting all of the sentences consecutively was at the judge’s discretion.

“The record amply supports the sentences given, including Defendant’s aggressive incorrigibility, lack of rehabilitation, and indifference to the law,” Gregory L. Barnes, an assistant attorney general, argued in a brief. “There is no evidence that the court took his previous appeal into account in determining to run the sentences consecutively.”

According to transcripts quoted in the briefs, Rellihan’s only comment on Richey’s sentencing was: “So he’s had many, many, many opportunities to become an active and good member of this community and he’s chosen not to.” Writing for the Southern District, Judge Daniel E. Scott, wrote that the trial judge “did not directly, or even indirectly, link Richey’s sentencing” to any right Richey had exercised or to the Supreme Court case.

The record, Scott added “forecloses Richey’s retaliation claim, and with it, all of Richey’s consecutive-sentencing challenges.” Chief Judge Jeffrey W. Bates and Judge Mary W. Sheffield concurred.

In an interview, Schneider said he doesn’t plan to seek further appeal in the case. However, he is separately representing Richey in an ongoing declaratory action seeking credit for Richey’s earlier improper incarceration for failure to pay the board bill. As part of the Richey ruling, the Supreme Court had thrown out a $2,275 bill Richey received after spending 65 days in jail for failure to comply with an order to pay an earlier board bill.

In addition, St. Louis-based ArchCity Defenders in February had filed a civil rights lawsuit on Richey’s behalf, alleging that St. Clair County’s practices amounted to a “modern-day debtors’ scheme” to raise revenue. The suit, which had been removed to federal court, was voluntarily dismissed on May 6. Corrigan L. Lewis, the ArchCity attorney who filed the case, couldn’t be reached for comment.

That suit also has alleged that the consecutive sentences were retaliatory. At the time of dismissal, Rellihan, one of the defendants in the suit, had argued that judicial immunity protected his actions. He also pointed to the then-pending appeal in the Southern District, arguing that it gave Richey an adequate remedy at law for “any rulings or allegedly unlawful actions taken in his criminal case.”

The appeal is State v. Richey, SD36153. The declaratory action is Richey v. St. Clair County et al., 20SR-CC00008.

 
By Scott Lauck | Missouri Lawyers Media molawyersmedia.com

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