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Contempt arrest sparks lawsuit; Thom Holt contends Floyd Magistrate Court wrongfully used threat of jail to collect private debt

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Thom Holt

Thom Holt

A local businessman is suing two Floyd County magistrate court judges following an order for his arrest on a felony theft of service charge with a bond set at $10,000 cash.

Thom Holt filed a claim Friday in Floyd County Superior Court against Chief Magistrate Gene Richardson and Judge Crystal Burkhalter. He said they wrongfully tried to use the threat of incarceration to collect a debt for a private business.

“The first thing I need to do is get this felony off my record,” Holt said Friday. “Then I want to make sure they don’t do this to anyone else.”

Richardson said Friday afternoon that he hadn’t seen the filing and couldn’t comment on it.

The suit stems from Holt’s June 7 arrest on a bench warrant issued by Burkhalter that included the condition that he would have to put up $10,000 in cash to be released on bond. She also sentenced him to 10 days in jail for contempt of court.

Richardson later changed the terms to allow a property bond on the theft charge, and said Holt could purge the contempt charge by paying the debt in full.

The filing by Holt’s attorney, Jeremy Salter, said Holt’s wife paid the debt out of fear Holt would be targeted in jail by inmates angered by his work as a co-founder of End Slavery Georgia.

“While Petitioner’s family paid the purge cost and posted the bond … (believing Petitioner was in mortal danger considering his efforts to end human (sex) trafficking), such actions were made under duress and not willful.”

Holt contends the court’s actions amount to the establishment of a de facto debtors prison, referring to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that local judges must distinguish between defendants who are too poor to pay and those who have the money but refuse.

The case in front of Burkhalter started when Midian Roofing Inc. sued Holt for nonpayment of a $2,997.90 bill for repairing the roof at one of Holt’s rental properties and received a default judgement on Dec. 28, 2016.

The company sought to garnish Holt’s pay as a principal of Coosa Valley News Inc., but was told he drew no salary. Holt contends he has no money and tried to work out a payment plan. The case bounced around Magistrate Court for several months until the June 7 hearing when Burkhalter ordered Holt’s arrest.

Holt is arguing that Burkhalter was acting as an advocate for Midian and he was not given a chance to defend himself. He’s asking the Superior Court to overrule and strike the order for arrest.