Mimesis Law
21 May 2019

Actress Tika Sumpter’s Mom Arrested for Library Late Fee…Or Maybe Not

November 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — The New York Daily News begins its hard-hitting story about arrest of a celebrity’s mom for something apparently quite trivial with a real zinger:

They threw the book at her.

Actress Tika Sumpter says her mother was arrested Monday — all because of a $10 late fee at her local library.

“Make sure you turn in your library books North Carolina,” the actress began a lengthy Twitter missive. “My mom was just arrested for having a late fee of 10 dollars on an overdue book!”

The article’s author no doubt enjoyed writing that opening line. Indeed, it might have been the reason for writing about the situation in the first place. There certainly isn’t much else newsworthy about what happened aside from the novelty of a huge overreaction by the government to something very minor and an opportunity to tie it to someone famous.

At first, though, it appears what happened was pretty ridiculous:

The arrest took place in Johnston County, N.C., where the Public Library of Johnston County & Smithfield calls home. According to the library’s website, overdue books elicit a 25-cent fine per day, while audio books, movies and CDs run an offender 50 cents every 24 hours.

Nowhere on the website, however, does it mention the possibility of an arrest. But Sumpter, 36, implied officials at the library went as far as to put out a warrant for her arrest.

“Treated like a criminal for a late fee of 10 dollars for overdue books from the library,” she tweeted. “Libraries now put out warrants.”

“An overdue book should NEVER result in a warrant,” she wrote in a separate tweet. “This is a legal scam.”

There’s something strange about a New York news outlet publishing a story about a lady being arrested for an overdue library book in North Carolina, though the tie to a celebrity explains that. It’s equally strange but also bothersome that the story made the news because of Twitter commentary about it from the lady’s daughter, a social media tirade that was actually cited thoroughly in the article.

Rather than rely on traditional sources, a famous person’s social media rants are apparently now enough to get a story off the ground. The obvious bias Sumpter has isn’t enough to discourage the media, it seems. Still, Sumpter’s mother does appear to have been treated unfairly by her account:

Making matters worse, the actress contended her mother — a retired corrections officer named Janice Acquista who Sumpter said had no previous rap sheet — actually returned the book that prompted the fine a long time ago.

“What you think can’t happen to you, can,” she wrote. “P.S. My mom returned the book a while back, someone didn’t put it in the system.”

Let’s say everything from Sumpter’s Twitter feed is correct. Her poor mom is a squeaky-clean, retired corrections officer. She got a library book and returned it. Someone at the library didn’t put that in the system. Eventually, a 25-cent-per-day fine began to accrue. After it got up to 10 dollars, the library somehow got authorities to put out a warrant for her arrest.

If true, that sucks for Sumpter’s mom. It’s a waste of resources, and it might be the basis for a pretty solid lawsuit. There’s another side of things, though:

Officials at the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office, however, said the warrant for Acquista’s arrest was filed because she wrote a check that bounced, then never made good on the payment afterward.

“It was a worthless check, and the D.A.’s office took out a warrant for her,” said Tammy Amaon, a public information officer for the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office.

This is where the problems with relying on a famous person’s Twitter feed as a news source should become apparent.

It’s possible that the sheriff totally lied about the arrest not having to do with an unreturned library book. It’s possible Acquista wasn’t arrested for writing a check that bounced and that she never subsequently failed to make good on payment. It’s exceedingly unlikely, however.

Sure, there are stupid law enforcement public information officers out there, but few are stupid enough to make up stuff like that. The warrant, whether it’s for an unpaid library fine or a bounced check, is something a reporter can find and review, and a sheriff’s representative has easy access to the records needed to figure out exactly why Acquista was arrested. Acquista posted bond and has a pending case, so looking up the charge would be easy too. Why would the public information officer just make up lies so ridiculously easy to disprove?

The article discusses other situations similar to the one claimed by Sumpter:

North Carolina isn’t the only state where people holding onto overdue library items have been booked. Similar incidents have occurred in Texas and Wisconsin in recent years, while a couple in Michigan faced, but ultimately avoided, jail time this past spring after they lost — and therefore failed to return — a copy of a Dr. Seuss book to their local book house. https://twitter.com/iamtikasumpter

And the article cites more of Sumpter’s tweeting, this time bolstering her claim what happened to her mom was ridiculous:

“She’s out now,” she tweeted. “Every cop at the jail thought it was absolutely ridiculous. They couldn’t even believe it.”

It would suck if Acquista was in fact arrested just for a ten dollar fine, but the smart money is on the official story told by the sheriff’s office being the closest thing to the truth in that article. Sure, there might be some kernel of truth tying it all to a library book. Maybe Acquista checked out the book, accrued 10 dollars in late fees, and then returned it and paid the fee with a bad check. It still wouldn’t make the primary narrative presented in the story true.

Sumpter’s mom might’ve told her the arrest was “all because of a $10 late fee.” It probably isn’t “all” because of that, though. Sumpter’s implication that officials at the library went as far as to put out a warrant for her arrest is definitely just wrong. At most, they reported something to police, who investigated and got a warrant from a court. Sumpter’s tweet that “Libraries now put out warrants” was probably intended to be snark, not a factual statement, but it’s certainly false too. Arresting people because of library fees might be “a legal scam,” but it’s unlikely Sumpter’s mom was really a victim of such a scam. Every cop in jail probably thought it was ridiculous because all they had to go on was what Acquista told them.

Acquista was arrested. Her daughter then freaked out, went on social media, and happened to have a huge audience and enough name recognition to get the media involved. Twitter isn’t the news, though. It isn’t reliable. That’s the case even when the person tweeting has a verified account.

A decent reporter should have put this story on hold to investigate after hearing the sheriff’s explanation of things. At that point, it should’ve been apparent that either 1) there was no story except for a famous person going off on an ill-informed online rant after being pissed off by something her mother told her but that she never researched, or 2) something only arguably newsworthy occurred, but the sheriff then did something incredibly newsworthy and disturbing by making up lies that would be exceedingly easy for a good reporter to expose. Sadly, what probably happened instead is that the New York Daily News published an article about a make-believe injustice with what really happened buried somewhere in the middle after putting no effort whatsoever into uncovering the truth.

The government does ridiculous things. This may be one of them, but probably not. The press should be more careful before claiming that’s the case.

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  • Agammamon
    16 November 2016 at 11:29 am - Reply

    “Why would the public information officer just make up lies so ridiculously easy to disprove?”

    I don’t know, maybe because the PIO doesn’t think anyone would do any checking up. As the original reporter didn’t.