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Lawsuit filed over Dallas County bail practices

Bring it on, I say.

On the heels of a federal ruling slamming Harris County for its bail practices, civil rights lawyers have now set their sights on a county with a similar system: Dallas.

Six indigent misdemeanor and felony defendants arrested this week and held in the Dallas County Jail filed suit against the county on Sunday night, claiming the bail system unconstitutionally discriminates against them by holding them in jail for days or weeks while letting similar defendants with cash walk free. One plaintiff, Shannon Daves, is a 47-year-old homeless and jobless transgender woman arrested on a misdemeanor theft charge. She has been kept in solitary confinement in the men’s unit since Wednesday under a $500 misdemeanor bond she can’t afford, the lawsuit claims.

“This system is really devastating for the people who can’t afford to purchase their freedom,” said Trisha Trigilio, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the legal groups representing the inmates. Lawyers with the Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project are also leading the lawsuits in both Dallas and Harris counties.


In Dallas County, the plaintiffs state that judicial magistrates set money bail based on the alleged crime and prior convictions without considering an inmate’s ability to pay or determining if non-monetary conditions of release, like an ankle monitor or cab fare voucher, could ensure the defendant shows up to court. Texas law requires officials to consider financial ability when setting bail.

Instead, poor inmates who have yet to be convicted usually stay in jail because they can’t afford the bail, sometimes causing them to lose their jobs or housing, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also argues that the threat of lengthy jail stays while awaiting trial encourages defendants to plead guilty.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Sunday that he wouldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit, but said the county is working to improve the system.

“I support bail reform because some low-risk suspects that don’t need to be there are held in Texas jails at taxpayer expense simply because they can’t afford to bond out,” he said.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price also pointed to the county’s efforts to reform its bail system, touting a decrease in the county jail population. As of December, there were about 5,000 inmates in the jail, which has a capacity for about 8,700, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

You can see a copy of the complaint here. There are differences between the Dallas and Houston cases – the Dallas one involves felons as well as misdemeanants, and as noted their jail population had already declined by a significant amount. And, not to make too fine a point of it, Dallas County is ruled by Democrats, not Republicans. I would hope that means they’ll be much more amenable to finding a settlement rather than draw this out. (As this story reminds us, the Harris County case hasn’t even been heard yet – Judge Rosenthal’s ruling was an injunction, not on the merits.) We’ll see what happens. The ACLU’s statement on the suit is beneath the fold.

Last night, the ACLU of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project filed a federal class action lawsuit against Dallas County, Texas, the sheriff, and the County’s judges and magistrates, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies. Those who cannot afford to pay money bail amounts determined by the county’s bail schedule are detained indefinitely, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay the money bail amounts are freed until trial.

“No person should be kept in a cage just because she doesn’t have enough money to make a payment,” said Civil Rights Corps Attorney Elizabeth Rossi. “The decision to throw a person who is presumed innocent in a jail cell is a serious one. And a person’s access to money should not be the only factor that determines whether she is free or is in jail.”

Dallas County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps people in jail if they can’t afford bail while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, homes, and communities. With each day in jail, the person’s chances for a fair trial diminish as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many plead guilty even when innocent, just to go home.

“The situation in Dallas County Jail is a crisis,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Like hundreds of people Dallas keeps locked in jail every day, our clients were never asked if they could afford the bail they were assigned. A judicial system where the amount of money in a bank account is the only thing standing between a defendant and her freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice.”

The suit, filed on behalf of six plaintiffs in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, accuses officials in the county of operating a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s time for Dallas to create a post-arrest system that upholds due process and equal protection, and honors the presumption of innocence,” said Susanne Pringle of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “A fair pretrial system is also a safer pretrial system for the entire community. Dallas County’s current unconstitutional practice of holding anybody who cannot afford to make an arbitrary payment makes everybody in the county less safe.”

The bail amounts for the suit’s plaintiffs range from $500 to $60,000. Of the six plaintiffs, nearly all are unemployed and living in poverty; one was working before his arrest and now fears losing that job because he is in jail. Plaintiff Shannon Daves, age 47, is homeless. On January 17, she was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor. She cannot afford the $500 money bail required by the court’s bail schedule. Ms. Daves is a trans woman and has been held in solitary confinement at the Dallas County Jail since her arrest because she is trans.

“In Dallas County, the government rips people out of their lives and throws them in jail, for no other reason than their inability to pay money bail,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “That jail time can bankrupt a family. Dallas County hurts not only the people who can’t afford its money bail, but those who can barely afford it—the families who wipe out their savings or fall victim to the bail bond industry’s predatory loan schemes just to keep a loved one out of jail. ”

Dallas County’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount. If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically, without evaluating whether the person will flee before trial or endanger the community. Those who cannot pay the pre-determined bail amount must remain in jail, waiting days or weeks for a release hearing.

Studies show that money bail systems like Dallas County’s make it more likely that innocent people will plead guilty before trial so they can get out of jail. Studies show that keeping someone in jail before trial increases the likelihood that, when released, they’ll be charged with another offense and return to the system.

Nationwide, as in Dallas County, a person’s ability to pay bail is the most important factor in determining whether someone is released or detained following arrest. Yet research demonstrates that money bail does not improve public safety or court appearance rates. Non-financial conditions of release—like unsecured bond, reporting obligations, and phone and text message reminders of court dates—are more effective at ensuring public safety and court appearances.

Over the past two years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention, resulting in reform and judicial orders condemning these practices in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. In 2014, an Alabama federal judge held in a case challenging money bail practices in a municipal court that “[j]ustice that is blind to poverty and indiscriminately forces defendants to pay for their physical liberty is no justice at all.”

The lawsuit against Dallas County is a continuation of efforts to end wealth-based bail detention in Texas and across the nation.

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50% and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — has launched a new initiative focused on bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. The lawsuit in Dallas County is our second bail related filing by the ACLU in 2018 alone, with many to come across the country as we work towards much-needed reforms to the money bail system.

Relying on longstanding Supreme Court precedent holding that no person should be kept in jail just because she cannot afford to make a payment, Civil Rights Corps attorneys have brought groundbreaking class action lawsuits across the country, challenging the scourge of money bail and shedding light on the traumatic experience of being jailed for being poor. These cases have prompted dozens of jurisdictions around the country to end their unconstitutional wealth-based pretrial detention policies, and they have provided momentum for a pretrial reform movement that is rippling throughout the United States and changing the way our legal culture and our society think about wealth-based human caging.

The Texas Fair Defense Project (“TFDP”) has worked to improve pretrial practices across Texas through both litigation and advocacy. This lawsuit is TFDP’s second lawsuit challenging unconstitutional money-bail systems in Texas.

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