HOUSTON (CN) – Texas’ most populous county unconstitutionally jails poor people charged with misdemeanors only because they cannot afford bail, a pretrial-detention system that also violates state law, a federal judge ruled.
Lead plaintiff Maranda ODonnell sued Harris County in May 2016, after she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of driving with an invalid license and a magistrate judge set her bail at $2,500.
ODonnell, 23, says her detention jeopardized a new restaurant job she was depending on to care for her young daughter. She got out of jail after a few days by paying her $2,500 bail.
She argues in her lawsuit that the county’s system of using a fee schedule to set bail based on the charges violates Fifth and 14th Amendment rights to due process and equal protection.
She also named Harris County’s 16 criminal court judges, its sheriff and five magistrate judges who set bond at probable cause hearings as co-defendants.
ODonnell says it makes no sense that someone charged with murder could be released if they can afford bail, while poor people charged with petty crimes languish behind bars, making them more likely to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit to get out and tend to their jobs and family.
Harris County counters that it considers more than just a defendant’s ability to pay in setting bail. It also weighs their criminal history and prior failures to appear for court hearings.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal agreed with ODonnell and granted her preliminary injunctive relief on Friday.
Rosenthal decided the county’s current system of requiring pretrial services staff to verify a misdemeanor defendant’s background information with a reference provided by the defendant before they can be released on an unsecured bond – with no payment up front –delays the process, impinging on the constitutional right to pretrial liberty.
She ordered Harris County pretrial services staff to make misdemeanor defendants sign an affidavit, stating what amount of bail they “could reasonably pay within 24 hours of his or her arrest” under penalty of perjury.
The affidavits must be reviewed by a magistrate judge at probable cause hearings that happen within 24 hours of an arrest.
“The purpose of this requirement is to provide a better, easier, and faster way to get the information needed to determine a misdemeanor defendant’s ability to pay,” Rosenthal wrote in a 193-page order.
Though Texas and federal law say judges must customize a defendant’s bail amount based on their circumstances, evidence presented during an eight-day hearing in March showed that Harris County’s hearing officers and criminal judges impose the scheduled bail amount 90 percent of the time, even for homeless people.
ODonnell’s attorneys presented evidence showing that Harris County’s bail system is so ingrained to work against poor people that of the 9,388 defendants the county’s pretrial services department recommended be released on no-fee or personal bonds, the magistrates denied a personal bond 56.3 percent of the time in 2015.
Judge Rosenthal reviewed 2,300 recordings of misdemeanor probable cause hearings and cited one she says discredits the hearing officers’ claims that they carefully review defendants’ ability to pay the scheduled bail on a case-by-case basis before setting bail.