LITTLE ROCK — The Searcy County sheriff is not eligible to hold office because of a 1979 misdemeanor theft conviction, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The state’s highest court overturned a Searcy County circuit judge’s ruling that allowed Kenny Webster Cassell to keep his job as sheriff despite the conviction.
Cassell pleaded guilty in October 1979 to a federal misdemeanor charge of embezzlement or theft of interstate or foreign shipments by carrier, admitting that he knowingly possessed stolen Cornish hens worth less than $100 that belonged to Tyson Foods and that the company had intended to ship to Maryland. The offense occurred while Cassell was employed by the sheriff’s office as a deputy.
Cassell was elected sheriff in November 2010. During that campaign he bought a newspaper ad telling voters about his conviction. He was re-elected in November 2012.
In October 2011, 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland filed a petition seeking Cassell’s removal from office. Searcy County Circuit Judge David Clinger dismissed the petition in August 2012, ruling that the state had not shown that Cassell’s conviction had impugned the integrity of the office or directly impacted his ability to serve. Clinger pointed out that voters knew about the conviction when they elected Cassell.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.
In its unanimous opinion Thursday overturning the circuit judge’s ruling, the high court noted that Article 5, Section 9 of the Arkansas Constitution states, "No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public money, bribery, forgery or other infamous crime shall be eligible to the General Assembly or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this state."
The court said it has ruled in the past that an "infamous crime" involves elements of deceit and dishonesty. It said the circuit judge had determined that Cassell’s crime did involve dishonesty, but the judge "erroneously determined that Cassell’s theft conviction alone was not enough to require removal without some proof that the conviction impugned the integrity of the elected office or directly impacted Cassell’s ability to serve."
"The state is correct in this case that we have not adopted a two-part test," Justice Cliff Hoofman wrote in the court’s opinion.
Special Justices Causley Edwards and Donald Raney took part in the case in place of Justices Karen Baker and Josephine Linker Hart, who did not participate.
The state Legislature this year enacted Act 724, which clarifies how an "infamous crime" is defined and will take effect Aug. 16. The new definition includes misdemeanor theft of property.