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Citing Harris County as precedent, judge declares Dallas County bail system unconstitutional

September 21, 2018

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on Thursday declared Dallas County’s bail practices often violate the constitutional rights of poor defendants, citing the case challenging the bail system in Harris County as precedent.

Lawyers representing poor defendants in Harris County, who also filed the Dallas County case, said Thursday’s ruling shows that U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal was correct in finding last year that Harris County’s cash bail system violated the rights of poor defendants.

“I think it confirms what has been the case all along, which is that the Harris County system and the Dallas County system are egregious and daily violations of constitutional rights,” said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney representing the defendants in both cases. “For now, this is a victory for the people of Dallas County who are arrested every day.”

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has been among the most outspoken county officials in support of the plaintiffs, said Texans should not be surprised by the Dallas County ruling.

“Everywhere, the tide is turning against unconstitutional, two-tiered systems of injustice that unfairly jail and punish the poor because they cannot afford bail,” Ellis said in a statement. “At the same time, others charged with similar crimes are able to walk free if they have the money in their pockets to bail out.”

In the Dallas case, U.S. District Judge David C. Godbey issued an injunction halting that county’s cash bail system, holding that the plaintiffs were likely to win the case on its merits.

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” Godbey wrote. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

Godbey wrote that he was bound to follow precedent set by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which largely upheld Rosenthal’s Harris County ruling, but instructed the trial court to increase the time period for the courts to make individualized bail determinations to 48 hours for people jailed on misdemeanors.

Rosenthal initially ordered Harris County to release defendants charged with low-level misdemenor offenses if they did not see a judge within 24 hours of arrest and who did not have holds or detainers. The 5th Circuit found that requirement to be too burdensome, and doubled that window to two days.

A key difference in the two lawsuits is Harris County’s ruling applies only to misdemeanor defendants, while Godbey’s order also covers defendants charged with felonies.

Rossi said that shows that cash bail systems unfairly keep poor defendants in jail, regardless of the seriousness of their charges.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said he agrees the county’s bail system must be reformed and favors settling the case on the terms of the 5th Circuit ruling, but said the plaintiffs’ attorneys have been unwilling to accept the county’s offer.

To date, Harris County has spent more than $6 million defending the lawsuit. Ellis said that sum already is too much, and the county must try harder to broker a settlement.

In addition to the Dallas and Harris county lawsuits, a similar lawsuit has been filed against Galveston County over its bail system.

Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at zach.despart@chron.com.

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