The actress who played Michelle Obama in this year’s “Southside With You” took to Twitter on Monday to say her mother, who lives near Clayton, had been arrested for failing to pay a library fine.
“Make sure you turn in your library books, North Carolina,” wrote Tika Sumpter, an actress who has also appeared in “A Madea Christmas” and “Ride Along.” “My mom was just arrested for having a late fee of 10 dollars on an overdue book!”
But that’s not exactly what happened, according to Sumpter’s mother, Janice Acquista, 65, a retired New York City corrections officer who now lives in the Flowers Plantation community.
Last summer, Acquista said, she wrote a $10 check for a membership at Clayton’s Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library. But the checked bounced, and that ultimately led to a warrant for her arrest, Acquista said.
But Sumpter’s outrage caught the attention of national media outlets, and the story soon spread. The actress went so far as to make her mother’s arrest a political issue.
“Presidential elections matter, but your local elections matter just as much,” Sumpter wrote on Twitter. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Town of Clayton spokesman John Hamlin said Tuesday that the town turns bad checks over to its billing department, which sends letters to the check writers giving them 10 days to respond. Acquista didn’t respond, according to town records, which led the town to turn the case over to the Johnston County District Attorney’s Office, which issued the arrest warrant, Hamlin said.
Traffic stop, then handcuffs
On Monday, Acquista said, she was traveling to a party with her 10-year-old granddaughter when she noticed a Johnston County sheriff’s patrol car. Acquista said she slowed to make sure she wasn’t speeding but slowed too much because she was looking at kilometers per hour, not miles. The deputy noticed Acquista slowing well below the speed limit and pulled her over on Wendell Road to make sure everything was OK, she said.
“He was very nice and very professional,” Acquista said of the deputy. “He asked me: ‘Are you OK? Are you sick? Is anything wrong?’ ”
Acquista said she told the deputy she was fine and explained her mistake. The deputy ran her license and registration and walked back to the car, where she said he was “very apologetic.”
“He said, ‘You have a warrant,’ and I just said, ‘What?’ ” Acquista said.
Acquista said she was unaware of the warrant because a letter about the bad check had apparently gone to the address of a rental property she owns. Also, when they first looked for her to serve the warrant, deputies went to that address too, Acquista said.
The deputy who pulled Acquista over told her he had to arrest her, but he waited with her and her granddaughter for about an hour until the grandchild’s mother, LaChauna Sumpter of Raleigh, could pick her up.
“He said he was so sorry,” Acquista said of the deputy.
The deputy allowed Acquista to ride up front in his patrol car but still had to handcuff her, she said. “I’ve never had handcuffs on in my life ever,” Acquista said.
Acquista and LaChauna Sumpter both said the deputy and other law enforcement officials were baffled by her situation. “They kept saying they couldn’t believe I was there for such a minute thing,” Acquista said.
At the courthouse, Acquista was taken before a magistrate, who set a $500 unsecured bond.
“It’s just the point that a $10 check could escalate to this point,” LaChauna Sumpter said. “We want to work toward seeing how this became the policy and see if there’s something more fair or equitable for the citizens.”
“My mom, she’s a strong lady,” LaChauna Sumpter added. “But this could have gone so many different ways. … This is too extreme of a consequence.”
Acquista said she was shocked by her arrest but was otherwise fine and was looking forward to her Dec. 13 court date, where she said she hopes the charges against her are thrown out.
Acquista said her granddaughter, Carrington, took the incident hard. “She was right there with me, and she was very upset,” Acquista said.
But the officer explained what was happening and told Carrington, “I’m not going to let anything happen to your grandmother,” Acquista said.
“It did show her not all cops are bad, not all police are bad,” Acquista added. “There are some very good men and women out here protecting us.”
Acquista said she was treated with respect throughout the ordeal, from her arrest to being released at the courthouse. “I couldn’t have asked for nicer officers,” she said.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett