Constitutional rights lawsuit filed against Bossier Parish judges, sheriff

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A federal class action lawsuit has been filed against judges of the 26th Judicial District Court and Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington alleging Constitutional rights of those incarcerated in the parish were violated.

A lawsuit was filed March 20, 2017 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana on behalf of impoverished people charged with minor crimes in Bossier Parish. The filing claims orders from the 26th Judicial District Court result in days, and sometimes weeks, of jail time for people unable to afford either bail or an application fee for the Public Defender.

James Wheat and Danny Brinson are the lead plaintiffs in the class action suit. Both were arrested on March 6, 2017, on allegations of panhandling and are held on $1,000 bail. The proposed class is represented by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans.

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

The lawsuit says that 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 waiting for a hearing before a judge.

it goes on to add that 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 arrestees 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. By definition, the people who are being held in jail for the $40 fee are indigent.

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 money-based detention policies and practices.”

“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.”

“To add insult to injury, if that same poor arrestee has his bail reduced or is 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 the arrestee 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.”

“Not only is it cruel to penalize people for being poor, but it is also unconstitutional,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center. “It violates the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses. It also is bad public policy. 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 bloated criminal justice system, practices like those currently employed by 26th Judicial District Court are prime targets for reform.”

A copy of the Class Action Complaint is available here: http://neworleans.macarthurjusticecenter.org/uploads/rsmjc-neworleans/documents/wheat_complaint.pdf