Judge Bars Jailing of Indigent Defendants for Misdemeanors

1st February, 2016
Daily Report
R. Robin McDonald

A federal judge in Rome has barred the city of Calhoun from detaining indigent defendants in misdemeanor or minor traffic cases in jail for as long as a week simply because they cannot afford a cash bond.

The injunction by U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy labeled as unconstitutional the city's practice of jailing indigent defendants accused of city ordinance violations and other misdemeanors who cannot raise enough money to pay preset cash bonds. The city routinely releases defendants who are awaiting adjudication of misdemeanor charges and have enough cash to post bond.


Murphy certified the suit as a class action, which could potentially cover hundreds of indigent defendants were jailed before any charges pending against them were heard by a judge..

Murphy said in his Jan. 28 order that the equal protection clause of the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment prohibits punishing people simply because they are poor. "Attempting to incarcerate or to continue incarceration of an individual because of the individual's inability to pay a fine or fee is impermissible," he wrote. "That is especially true where the individual being detained is a pretrial detainee who has not yet been found guilty of a crime."


Murphy said that until the city can institute post-arrest procedures that pass constitutional muster, it must release any misdemeanor arrestees in its custody on their own recognizance or on an unsecured bond. The city, he said, "may not continue to keep arrestees in its custody for any amount of time solely because the arrestees cannot afford a secured bond."


Frank Beacham of Brinson Askew Berry Siegler Richardson & Davis in Calhoun and David Root of Atlanta's Carlock Copeland & Stair, who represent the city, referred questions to Calhoun city attorney George Govignon. He could not be reached.


Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights who represents 54-year-old plaintiff Maurice Walker, said that Murphy's order is potentially significant for other cities across the state. She said many cities routinely jail misdemeanor defendants "who can't afford to purchase their release."


"It becomes a particular issue in places where court is held infrequently," she said. "In some jurisdictions, city court is held only once a week and sometimes once every two weeks. We can't have a system where some people are allowed to purchase their release from jail while others have to sit until the next court date only because of a person's poverty."


Geraghty said there is a movement afoot across the country to end cash bail systems. The American Bar Association, she said, has cautioned that a court shouldn't impose financial conditions that result in pretrial detention solely because of an inability to pay. "There are alternatives to freeing the rich and jailing the poor," she said. The Southern Center joined with attorneys from the Washington civil rights organization Equal Justice Under the Law to bring the class action case.


Walker's suit stemmed from his arrest in September on a misdemeanor pedestrian intoxication charge. Walker, according to Murphy's order, has a mental disorder that has left him disabled and unable to hold a job for the past five years. He lives with his sister, who manages the $530 monthly disability stipend he receives. After his arrest, Walker was told that he would not be released until he paid a $160 cash bond.


Calhoun Municipal Court convenes every Monday. But because Walker was arrested Sept. 3, and court was not held on Sept. 7 because of the Labor Day holiday, Walker's court appearance was not until Sept. 14, nearly two weeks after his arrest.


Walker was released after six days in jail, but only after pro bono lawyers filed the federal suit on his behalf. While he was in custody, Walker did not receive medications he was required to take daily to control his condition; he was assigned to a one-man cell and was allowed out only one hour a day, according to Murphy's order.


According to the judge, Walker was not offered any alternative that would have secured his release prior to his court date other than to post an immediate cash payment.


City lawyers argued before Murphy's ruling that Walker could not demonstrate how "a short incarceration in jail" caused irreparable harm. They contended that "the offenses for which individuals are detained are not petty, trivial offenses" and that those who are arrested "pose a risk or danger to the community and, in some instances, themselves."


They also argued that the city would suffer "substantial financial harm" if it were required to implement a system of unsecured bonds and that the city court "will face an endless cycle of arrests on bench warrants, incarceration, and re-release for inability to pay" which also would increase the city's overhead.


City lawyers had also asked to dismiss the case because after the suit was filed the city revised its bail policy in an attempt to remedy deficiencies. The new policy limits to 48 hours the amount of time that indigent arrestees can be held in jail. But Murphy said that simply shortening the amount of time an indigent defendant could be jailed because he or she had no money was not an acceptable remedy.


"There is no guarantee that [the city] will not revert back to its previous bail policy at some point," he wrote.

The judge also pointed out that even though city lawyers argued that releasing indigent defendants on an unsecured bond would pose a risk, the current system of releasing arrestees who could afford bond "clearly does nothing to address those concerns."