Attorneys challenging the constitutionality of Harris County’s pretrial bail policies have added all 16 of Harris County’s misdemeanor court judges as defendants in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week after mediation aimed at settling the dispute broke down after only two days, federal court records show.
Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit Texas Fair Defense Project and a Houston law firm, Susman Godfrey, filed the suit in May, arguing that hundreds of offenders are not released on personal bonds and are unlawfully jailed for minor offenses like trespassing and shoplifting simply because they are poor and cannot afford even nominal bail payments. They argue that the county’s “wealth-based pretrial detention system violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution.”
Earlier this week, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal issued an order urging county officials to mediate and settle the dispute with the plaintiff’s counsel, who filed the action on behalf of Maranda Odonnell, a 22-year-old single mother who was jailed last year after being arrested for driving without a valid license only because she could not afford to post bail. Neither side would comment on why talks broke down.
See here and here for the background. The case number is 16-cv-01414, and there’s a copy embedded in the story. At an earlier hearing, Judge Rosenthal asked why the Sheriff was a plaintiff but the county criminal court judges weren’t. I guess this partly addresses that question.
Update #2, from the same case a couple of days earlier: Bail foes say Harris County attorneys misled federal judge in civil rights case.
Attorneys challenging the constitutionality of Harris County’s rigid bail system say the county’s attorneys have misled a federal judge by claiming that 20 percent of those arrested for misdemeanors are released on so-called personal bonds when county statistics show the actual number is 8.5 percent.
Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., filed the civil rights suit against Harris County in May, arguing that hundreds of offenders are not released on personal bonds and are unlawfully jailed for minor offenses like trespassing and shoplifting simply because they are poor and cannot afford even nominal bail payments.
The group’s attorneys have cited Harris County’s own pretrial annual reports, which show that in 2015 only 8.5 percent of the 50,947 people arrested for misdemeanors were released on so-called personal bonds, which do not require cash or a bail bondsman. The percentage has remained about the same from January through April 2016.
The 20 percent figure came from Katharine David, one of five outside attorneys representing the county, who said during an Aug. 18 hearing that a fifth of those charged with misdemeanors are actually released on personal bonds. But her figure excludes anyone who bonded out immediately, anyone who was not interviewed by the county’s pretrial services office and anyone who was already on probation or facing immigration holds and thus not eligible for personal bonds, David later explained to the Chronicle.
David later said in an interview that the number of people who were arrested and later released on personal bonds remains small – 4,307 people out of 50,947 arrested for misdemeanors in 2015, or 8.5 percent.
But she said the county’s hearing officers should be judged based on the number of people they released on no-cost bond after interviews with pretrial services who were not already on probation or facing immigration holds. If those people were subtracted from the county’s 2015 annual report, the pool of misdemeanor offenders would be reduced from 50,947 to less than 30,000 arrestees, thereby increasing the percentage of those particular offenders who were granted pretrial release.
I don’t know about that – seems a bit dicey to me – but we’ll leave that to the lawyers and the judge to sort out.
And Update #3: Sheriff’s Office dismissed from jailed rape victim’s lawsuit.
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has been dismissed from a lawsuit brought by a rape victim who was jailed by prosecutors after she suffered a psychological breakdown on the witness stand, according to court documents.
In an amended lawsuit filed on Thursday, all claims against Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman and his office were dismissed.
“What has become clear since we filed the initial complaint is that we can address the same legal issues through our lawsuit against Harris County,” said Sean Buckley, lead attorney on the civil case. “We now believe that it would be duplicitous to sue both Hickman and Harris County.”
See here, here, here, and here for the background. Doesn’t sound like Sheriff Hickman is off the hook, just that the case will be tried differently. I don’t see either of these as being settled any time soon. Links for this update and the first one via Houston Legal.