The two district court judges in Pine Bluff and Jefferson County have assumed new responsibilities because of changes in state law.
Speaking to the West Pine Bluff Rotary Club on Thursday, Jefferson County District Judge Kim Bridgforth said both courts are now pilot courts, and can now handle some cases that were formerly handled by circuit judges in the district, which includes Jefferson and Lincoln counties.
Starting last year, Bridgforth said, she assumed responsibility for the city courts outside the Pine Bluff city limits — White Hall, Redfield, Humphrey, Wabbaseka and Altheimer — and goes to each of those towns to conduct court once a month.
“Prior to taking over those … cities, all the prisoners who were scheduled for those courts had to be transported to that city and back again,” Bridgforth said.
The dollar value for filing claims in small claims court has increased from $5,000 to $25,000, and Bridgforth said that has produced a “hugh caseload” in small claims and civil proceedings.
“We can also sign search warrants because crime is not an 8 to 5, Monday through Friday thing,” Bridgforth said. “By signing those warrants, I’ve gotten to know a lot of the officers who are out there on the front lines and they’re good people.”
In addition, both Bridgforth and Pine Bluff District Judge John Kearney conduct probable cause and first appearance hearings for felonies each week, alternating days.
Bridgforth said she and Kearney can also be appointed to hear Circuit Court cases if there is a conflict with the judge assigned to the case.
“So far, it’s all been good,” Bridgforth said.
She said last year, the First Division of District Court (her division) handled 14,168 cases, not including felony probable cause hearings and first appearances, and generated more than $1.9 million in revenue.
Bridgforth said that revenue did not include the value produced by people doing community service work.
“We want to be certain that people who are unemployed or have monetary issues are not penalized,” she said. “There’s no fee involved, and the work is done through the sheriff’s office. It’s a win-win situation.”
As an example, Bridgforth said the sheriff’s office has a contract with the state to pick up trash and litter and is being paid up to $50,000 for that work.
“Right now, we’re on track to collect all of that $50,000,” she said.
Bridgforth also discussed the Hot Check Initiative that the court, prosecutors and the sheriff’s office began last year, saying that the program has collected more than $227,000 in restitution and merchant fees since it began.
“We’re taking steps in the right direction,” she said.
Bridgforth also gave the Rotarians a preview of something new the state police are currently using, e-tickets.
Using the back of an Arkansas driver’s license, she said that troopers can scan the bar code on the back of the license, which will encode all the person’s information directly onto a citation, rather than a trooper having to stand on the side of the highway while writing a ticket by hand.
“It will show a person’s history, if there are any warrants, if they have a concealed weapons carry permit, a lot of things,” Bridgforth said.
In addition, she said the ticket information is automatically transmitted to the court, rather that a trooper having to come to the court building and turn in the tickets by hand.
“This will stop some of the people who are using fake names when they get stopped,” Bridgforth said. “Usually when someone does that, they use the name of a family member.”
In answer to a question, Bridgforth said the state police are the only law enforcement agency currently using the system.
“It’s the wave of the future,” she said.