Lawsuit Alleges State Judges in Bossier Parish Routinely Violate Constitutional Rights of Poor Charged with Minor Offenses

From a press release

SHREVEPORT, La. – A federal class action lawsuit has been filed on behalf of poor people charged with minor crimes in Bossier Parish, where orders from the 26th Judicial District Court result in days, and sometimes weeks, of jail time for people unable to afford bail or an application fee for the Public Defender.

In addition to Judges of the 26th District Court, the other defendant in the suit is Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian C. Whittington, who operates the jail where arrestees unable to pay for release are housed.

In Bossier Parish, people arrested for state misdemeanor and traffic offenses are automatically released from Sheriff’s custody if they pay bail amounts determined by a “bail schedule” issued by the judges of the 26th Judicial District. Those too poor to pay these predetermined bail amounts are forced to remain in jail and wait for a hearing before a judge, according to the lawsuit filed March 20, 2017 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

The bail amount ranges from $100 to more than $1,000 per offense. Because there is a fixed amount for each offense, a person charged with multiple offenses could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in bond.

Those arrested who are too poor to afford a lawyer are represented by a public defender, but the judges of the 26th Judicial District have ordered the sheriff not to release them until they have paid a $40 application fee.

“When a poor person is picked up on a misdemeanor violation in Bossier Parish their bail is automatically set without regard for income, whether they are a flight risk or whether they are a danger to the community. If an arrestee cannot afford bail, he sits in jail until the court holds a hearing,” said Eric Foley, attorney with the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. “That process can take months.”

James Wheat and Danny Brinson are the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit. Both were arrested on March 6, on allegations of panhandling and are held on $1,000 bail.

“To add insult to injury, if that same poor arrestee has his bail reduced or granted release without a cash payment, then the Sheriff will continue to hold him in custody until he pays $40 for the privilege of applying for a public defender—whose representation is guaranteed by the Constitution,” Foley said. “The result is that many Bossier Parish residents may languish in jail not because they are a threat to society, but simply because they are poor.”

Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the MacArthur Justice Center says the policy violates the 14 amendment.

“Not only is it cruel to penalize people for being poor, but it is also unconstitutional,” Schwartzmann says. “It violates . . . due process and equal protection clauses. In the days that people sit in jail, they may lose their jobs or housing. Plus, the taxpayers pay the jail expenses of people who are only in jail because they are too poor to pay their way out. This is a lose-lose situation for everyone. As Gov. Edwards and the legislature work to reduce the costs of Louisiana’s criminal justice system, practices like those currently employed by 26th Judicial District Court are prime targets for reform.”

The lawsuit requests a declaratory judgment that the practices in Bossier Parish violate the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and classes they represent, and a court order enjoining Whittington from “enforcing the unconstitutional post-arrest and money-based detention policies and practices.”

A copy of the class action complaint is available here.

 

 

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