A federal lawsuit accuses a central Arkansas city of effectively operating a debtor's prison by imposing hefty fines and jail time on thousands of people whose checks bounce.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses the city of Sherwood and Pulaski County of violating the constitutional rights of thousands of residents through the prosecution of hot check cases. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law filed the lawsuit on behalf of five residents.

It accuses the city and county of using a "labyrinthine" system that can turn a $15 bounced check into thousands of dollars in court costs, fines and fees. The lawsuit says the practice targets some of the poorest people in the community.