Arkansas’ court of appeals reverses grain broker’s hot-check conviction

A man sentenced to five years in prison for violating the state’s hot check law had his conviction reversed Wednesday after the Arkansas Court of Appeals determined the lower court erred in denying his motion for directed verdict.

Dale Bartlett, who was 45 at the time of the violation, was convicted and ordered to serve five years in prison by a Monroe County jury for violation of the Arkansas Hot Check Law. He also was ordered to pay $401,900.25 in restitution plus court costs and fines.

Bartlett appealed, arguing that the state’s hot check law does not apply to pre-existing debts, the circuit court abused its discretion by permitting the victim to sit at counsel’s table as the state’s representative, the verdict was not supported by evidence and that the circuit court abused its discretion by admitting evidence under the law.

The Court of Appeals agreed the law doesn’t apply to pre-existing debts and dismissed the case on the first point of appeal.

Bartlett started Turner Grain, a grain brokering business, in 2001. The company bought rice, corn, soybeans and wheat from local farmers and sold it to a third-party major grain buyer, according to the appeal.

The amount of money the farmer would receive from Turner Grain was calculated from the grade given to the grain by the third-party buyer. During this process, the farmer would complete the farmer’s part of the transaction before Turner Grain would issue payment for the grain, which normally took about two weeks.

On April 30, 2014, Turner Grain began loading trucks with grain from a local farmer and continued through June 6, 2014, for a total of 41 loads. A statement indicated Turner Grain owed the local farmer $401,900.25 for the 41 loads of medium-grain rice, according to the appeal.

The wife of the local farmer picked up a check from Turner Grain for that amount and presented it to Helena National Bank, but the check was returned because of insufficient funds. The farmer was never paid for the 41 loads, and a criminal information was filed July 31, 2017, against Bartlett for violation of the state’s hot check law.

Bartlett’s counsel moved for a directed verdict during a jury trial in 2019 on the basis that the state’s hot check law applies only to an exchange for value at the time of the transaction under the law.

The circuit court denied Bartlett’s motion for a directed verdict, finding that there was a prima facie case of intent to defraud under the law because the check, when presented for deposit, bore the endorsement of a collecting bank indicating the check had been returned because of insufficient funds.

The jury found Bartlett guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison and ordered him to pay restitution to the local farmer in the amount of $401,900.25 plus court costs and fines.

The Court of Appeals ruled the $401,900.25 check at issue was for pre-existing debt and therefore doesn’t fall under the Arkansas Hot Check Law. Court documents state it was undisputed at trial that the check was for the medium-grain rice that Turner Grain purchased from the local farmer, and that nothing of value was given or received and the parties remained in exactly the same position as they were before the exchange.

The case was dismissed, and the court determined the other three points no longer needed to be addressed.

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