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Judge says Cullman bail system unconstitutional

September 13, 2018

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge on Thursday ordered an Alabama county to change bail procedures after issuing a preliminary finding that the county is unconstitutionally detaining people after arrest because they can’t afford to pay.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala issued a preliminary injunction directing Cullman County to alter bail procedures. The order will stay in place as the lawsuit challenging the fairness of a monetary bail system continues. Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry and judges in the county are appealing the decision, court records indicate.

Haikala wrote last week that people charged with identical crimes are “treated differently based on their financial status” and that plaintiffs are “substantially likely to prove that Cullman County’s discriminatory bail practices deprive indigent criminal defendants in Cullman County of equal protection of the law.”

The judge said that people arrested in Cullman County are freed quickly if they can post a secured bond, but others must wait up to 72 hours to see a judge and have various factors like flight risk, financial status and threat assessment evaluated.

“As currently implemented, Cullman County’s bail schedule does nothing to secure public safety. A defendant with financial means who is charged with assault can go home within two hours of his arrest if he can post a $10,000 bond, while an indigent defendant charged with fourth degree possession of a forged instrument who cannot afford to post a $3,000 secured bond remains in custody awaiting a hearing.

An attorney for the Cullman County sheriff could not immediately be reached for comment. Court records indicate the county is appealing the injunction. The Alabama attorney general’s office referred calls to the sheriff’s attorney.

County officials had sought to dismiss the lawsuit as moot in March after new bail procedures, including lower amounts, were put in place. The judge said those were still problematic.

The lawsuit was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Civil Rights Corps and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama on behalf of an inmate held on a $1,000 bond he could not afford.

“Today was a big win for all Cullman County residents because no longer will the county be allowed to treat residents with means differently than those without in our criminal justice system. Jails are not meant to warehouse people who have not been convicted of a crime, particularly where, as here, the rich are able to buy their freedom and impoverished people are left to languish in jail,” Sam Brooke, SPLC deputy legal director said in a statement.

The lawsuit is one of several across the country challenging the constitutionality of monetary bail systems.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which would hear any appeal in the Alabama case, last month ruled in favor of a Georgia city in a similar lawsuit. The appellate court in in a 2-1 decision upheld the city of Calhoun’s policy, saying it doesn’t violate due process rights to jail people for up to 48 hours before they see a judge who can rule whether they are too poor to pay bail.

Haikala wrote in the ruling last week that Cullman’s procedure “differs significantly” from the process in the city of Calhoun because indigent defendants cannot secure their release merely by proving that they are indigent according to a uniform standard.

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