Dallas County Ordered to Reform Bail System

DALLAS (CN) – Dallas County’s automatic money bail system violates poor defendants’ civil rights by not considering their ability to pay, a federal judge ruled late Thursday.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey granted a group of indigent arrestees’ motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered the end of the practice within 30 days. He ordered county judges to consider alternatives to money bail for every arrestee booked in the Dallas County Jail.

A proposed class of plaintiffs sued the county, its sheriff and the county’s criminal judges in January to stop the “system of wealth based-detention” that imposes “secured money bail without an inquiry into” ability to pay.

Godbey said the county judges routinely impose secured bond amounts recommended by automatic schedules that result in pretrial detention of the indigent in violation of their equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment.

“The fact remains that two arrestees similar in every way except their ability to pay will have vastly different pretrial outcomes as a result of the magistrate judges’ mechanical application of the bond schedules,” the 17-page opinion states. “Wealthy arrestees – regardless of the crime they are accused of – who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave. Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

The judge concluded that even in cases where financial affidavits were introduced, “decisions are still made in an overtly mechanical way” to the disadvantage of the poor.

Godbey disagreed, however, with the plaintiffs’ argument that their due process rights were violated, holding that the county’s system did not rise to the level of the “excessive” bail standard under the Eighth Amendment.

“The moment that plaintiffs transition from advocating for reformed procedures to advocating for the abolition of or lessening of monetary bail, they must traverse through the Eighth Amendment,” he wrote. “The court declines to use substantive due process as an end-around of the Eighth Amendment.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Civil Rights Corps and Texas Fair Defense Project.

The ACLU of Texas hailed the ruling Friday against a system “which everyone knows” is unconstitutional.

“The district court sent a message that by now should be clear to every court system in this country: rationing freedom on money is illegal,” Brandon Buskey, deputy director for ACLU Smart Justice Litigation, said in a statement. “We can protect the right to liberty before trial and keep communities safe. But cash bail does neither.”

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