A federal class action lawsuit filed late Monday night by a pair of civil-rights law firms alleges that “officials of the 15th Judicial District Court and Sheriff’s Office in Lafayette routinely violate the constitutional rights of impoverished people through the use of an assembly-line system of setting secured money bail without giving any consideration to what any individual can afford to pay or to alternative, non-financial conditions of release.”
Filed jointly by the Washington, D.C.-based Civil Rights Corp and The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans, the suit names Edward Little, an inmate in the Lafayette Parish Correctional Center whose birth date is listed as 1979 and who is being held on a $3,000 bond for a theft charge, as lead plaintiff. (Little would need to cough up about $300 to a bail bond company to secure his release.)
Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, says in a release announcing the lawsuit that Little “is in jail tonight because he and his family cannot pay a few hundred dollars. He has not been found guilty of a crime. And he has not been found to be dangerous or a flight risk. But he is in jail anyway because he does not have enough money. Hundreds of thousands of other people like Mr. Little are in jail tonight because of their poverty. This is unconstitutional, and it has to stop.”
In a telephone interview with The Independent Tuesday morning, Gerstein said his firm is currently pressing similar suits elsewhere.
“Most recently we prevailed in Houston, Texas, on a similar set of facts,” he says, adding that a similar suit in pending in Ascension Parish.
“Basically, the Constitution forbids locking someone up for no reason other than the amount of money she has, and has been true in American law for a long time and we believe these cases to be a simple application of that general rule of law,” Gerstein adds.
The suit, which can be viewed here, argues that bond policies in Lafayette violate the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. According to the release:
• Bond is automatically set at predetermined amounts for most people arrested on suspicion of having committed a misdemeanor. For more serious charges, Commissioner Frederick sets the bond in phone call. Sheriff Garber releases those who can pay the cash bond or pay a percentage to a commercial a bail bond company.
• Commissioner Frederick sets these initial secured money bail amounts without communicating with the arrestee and without information about the arrestee’s finances. Impoverished arrestees are not represented by a lawyer at this point.
• Arrestees who cannot afford to immediately post money must wait jail for up to four days before they even see a judicial officer at their initial appearance. And even then the judicial officer does not ask about ability to pay and rejects attempts by arrestees to explain they are not able to pay.
• After that initial hearing, filing a motion before a judge is the only opportunity for a lower bond or a non-financial alternative condition of release. Arrestees often remain in jail for a week or longer before a judge hears a money-bail reduction motion.
Commissioner Thomas Frederick and 15th JDC Chief Judge Kristian Earles are named with Garber as co-defendants. Tuesday afternoon, LPSO spokesman John Mowell told local media that "details of this complaint are being forwarded to our attorneys for review, therefore, no additional details can be provided at this time."