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California class action over prearraignment cash bail advances

Law enforcement officials in Los Angeles have already been temporarily barred from using prearraignment cash bail. But the legal wrangling over the related lawsuit is far from over.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A judge declined Tuesday to remove California Attorney General Rob Bonta as a defendant in a class action challenging the use of prearraignment cash bail in Los Angeles.

Filed this past November, the lawsuit seeks to block both the LA Police Department and LA County Sheriff's Department from using cash bail to hold arrestees in jail prior to arraignment, their first chance to appear before a judge. The named plaintiffs in the case comprise six Angelenos who had been jailed within a five-day period before the complaint was filed. Lead plaintiff Phillip Urquidi was 25 and homeless when he was arrested on suspicion of vandalism and held on $20,000 bail.

Each of the men were held according to a "bail schedule," a formula for determining a cash bail. Urquidi claims the use of the bail schedule is unconstitutional since it unfairly forces poor people to spend up to five additional days — the amount of time it can take to see a judge — in jail. During that time, the plaintiffs say, arrestees often lose their jobs, stop taking psychiatric medication or can't take care of sick relatives.

While LA Superior Court Judge Lawrence Riff agreed in May to temporarily block the use of prearraignment cash bail for nonviolent, low-level crimes, the injunction did not apply to those who were already out on bail, on probation or subject to an arrest warrant.

The ruling has drawn criticism, including some from unlikely sources. This month, the rapper 50 Cent posted a news report on the ruling to Instagram, commenting: "LA is finished watch how bad it gets out there.”

Judge Riff gave the parties 60 days to come up with a new system for how people should be treated in the days between arrest and arraignment. A hearing on those negotiations is scheduled for Aug. 7.

But two weeks ago, LA County's courts announced a plan of their own: a new bail schedule largely in line with Riff's ruling — zero cash bail for "non-violent, non-serious felonies and misdemeanors." The court also devised a system for trying to ensure that certain arrestees are monitored in some way.

Under the plan, which is set to take effect on Oct. 1, most arrestees will be released right away "on their own recognizance." Some arrestees — "persons arrested for certain crimes which pose a greater risk to the public" — will be sent to a magistrate judge who will work out "non-financial pre-arraignment release terms and conditions" in order to "reduce the risk to the public and victim safety and the likelihood of the arrestee returning to court." For example, the arrestee could be signed up for text message reminders about court appearances, or given an electronic monitoring bracelet.

The decision by the courts to implement a new prearraignment bail system represents something of a monkey wrench for the Urquidi lawsuit. On Tuesday, Judge Riff suggested that the plaintiffs may be planning to file an amended complaint that takes into account the new bail schedule.

Bonta had not been named as a defendant in the original complaint but was later added at the the behest of the other defendants. Bonta demurred, arguing his office has nothing to do with bail schedules or cash bail. More recently, he argued the new bail schedule meant that the "landscape" of the case had "fundamentally shifted."

"The new bail schedules raise significant uncertainties about the relief available in this case, including whether some or all of the case is moot," Bonta wrote.

Bonta wanted the hearing on the demurrer continued, a move that drew no objection from the other parties but nevertheless failed to win over Judge Riff.

"We have an operative complaint," he said. "We have a preliminary injunction in place. We have an abeyance period coming to an end. And we have a trial date. Delaying forward progress in the case... just does not seem like the right act of case management from the court."

A curious feature of the case has been that none of the defendants have showed much interest in speaking up for the use of prearraignment cash bail. That likely reflects the political beliefs of elected officials in the city and county — most of them oppose cash bail. Instead, the lawyers for the city and county have spent much of the proceedings trying to argue that they shouldn't be there at all. They don't make the laws, they've argued, or set the bail schedule. It was those arguments that led to Bonta being joined to the case, with Judge Riff's acquiesce. Bonta's demurrer thus faced long odds.

Deputy Attorney General Christina Lopez dialed in remotely to Tuesday's hearing where she presented a familiar argument to the judge: Bonta had nothing to do with setting bail in Los Angeles.

"There's no claim that the the attorney general has any power over the superior court," said Lopez. "The AG is duty bound to enforce all the laws of California. We do not have the discretion to decide a law is unconstitutional and not enforce it."

The plaintiffs in the case had never particularly wanted Bonta as a defendant. But the city and county have argued that their hands are tied: if they don't enforce the system of cash bail, which was drawn up by the Legislature, they themselves could be held liable by the state attorney general.

This issue led to what has become a familiar occurrence in the proceedings: a hypothetical question from Judge Riff.

"Let's say, hypothetically, somehow a law got passed that said that persons of Asian descent may not go west of Fairfax Boulevard after 5 p.m.," Riff said. "And the attorney general were to learn that the sheriff of LA County is enforcing that law. Could the AG direct the sheriff, 'Don't enforce that law, it's unconstitutional'?"

"I believe the answer is yes," said Rowley Rice, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "The California Constitution does give the attorney general broad enforcement power as top law enforcement official."

A lawyer for the county agreed. "The attorney general has the power to override the bail schedule," he said.

Lopez disagreed, and said the idea that Bonta was somehow the sheriff's "boss" was a "novel proposition."

The normally loquacious Riff overruled the demur, offering little explanation.

"The demur is based on the proposition that the operative complaint fails to state facts against the attorney general," he said. "The court concludes it does state facts against the attorney general."

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Monday. The issue of prearraignment cash bail in Los Angeles is still very much a live one. And a bench trial in the Urquidi suit is currently scheduled to start in October 2024.

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