(The Daily Advertiser) – A federal class-action lawsuit was filed Wednesday against the 15th Judicial District Court and Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office. The suit alleges officials in Lafayette routinely violate the constitutional rights of poor people through the use of an assembly-line system of setting bail without consideration to what an individual can afford to pay.
“Edward Little, the named Plaintiff in this case, is in jail tonight because he and his family cannot pay a few hundred dollars,” said Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. “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.”
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, and the defendants are Thomas Frederick, Commissioner of Louisiana’s 15th Judicial District; Chief Judge Kristian Earles of the 15th Judicial District; and Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber.
According to the lawsuit, the wealth-based detention system in Lafayette Parish violates the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. Here’s how it works, according to a news release from the MacArthur Center:
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 a phone call. Sheriff Mark 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 in 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 why 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.
“People who cannot afford to pay pre-set amounts of money, untethered to their actual financial resources, often spend months in jail awaiting disposition of their cases,” the lawsuit states. “They are all presumed innocent.”