Panel Tosses Injunction Against Cash Bail in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS (CN) – A federal judge did not adequately weigh a new Missouri Supreme Court rule for cash bail bonds before issuing an injunction prohibiting the practice in St. Louis city courts, the Eighth Circuit ruled.

At issue is a rule that prohibits state courts from imposing cash bonds without considering the arrestee’s financial circumstances.

jail, cell, inmate, incarceration, prison, barsThe three-judge panel of Republican appointees found Friday that the federal court gave little weight to the factors involved, including the threat of irreparable harm to the arrestee, the balance between the harm to the arrestee versus the harm that granting the injunction would have on the other parties, the probability that the arrestee would succeed on the merits and the public interest.

“These rules were announced months before, and took effect just three weeks after, the district court issued its injunction,” U.S. Circuit Judge Ralph R. Erickson, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote in the seven-page opinion. “And, as the district court recognized, they addressed the very procedures with which plaintiffs take issue.”

During a December hearing before the Eighth Circuit, a lawyer for four people who claim they were held in a debtors’ jail in St. Louis argued that a recent rule change in bail procedures does not make their case moot.

Arpit K. Garg, representing the plaintiffs, said his clients were held in the St. Louis city jail for months before trial because they couldn’t afford bail.

Garg, of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington D.C., argued that the 22nd Circuit in Missouri, which covers St. Louis, systematically violated his clients’ constitutional rights. He told reporters after the hearing that it takes a month to get a public defender appointed. His clients are sitting in jail while waiting for that appointment, causing them to lose their jobs and access to their children, along with physical and emotional harms.

Robert H. Dierker represented the city and Missouri Solicitor General D. John Sauer represented the judges named in the lawsuit. They claimed during oral arguments that the injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Audrey Fleissig closely mirrored the bail rule handed down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

“The Missouri Supreme Court, by initiating an update to the rules pertaining to cash bail, was presumably using its superintendence powers to signal to the lower state courts that the status quo was unacceptable,” Erickson wrote. “The defendants took the hint,” by instituting a procedure to achieve full compliance.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jonathan A. Kobes, another Trump appointee, and Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Michael J. Melloy, a George W. Bush appointee, joined Erickson in the unanimous opinion. The case has been remanded back to the federal court for further proceedings.

“The city is pleased with the decision of the Court of Appeals overturning the preliminary injunction in Dixon v. City of St. Louis,” Dierker said in a statement. “Although the city has no role to play in setting conditions of release for state prisoners, the district court had presented City Corrections Commissioner [Dale] Glass with the impossible task of reviewing state court bail orders and potentially releasing pretrial detainees who could pose a threat to the community. The federal court of appeals has returned those decisions to the judges, who are the proper decision makers.”

Garg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

ArchCity Defenders, a St. Louis-based legal advocacy organization designed to combat the criminalization of poverty and state violence, especially in communities of color, is helping represent the plaintiffs.

“ArchCity looks forward to pressing ahead with the case,” the organization said in a statement. “We are actively monitoring the practices in the city courts, and will continue to do everything we can to prevent people from being wrongly and unnecessarily detained because they are poor.”

Bail reform has become a hot button topic in Missouri after the Ferguson protests stemming from the police shooting of an unarmed black man in 2014. The lawsuit debated before the Eighth Circuit in December is one of several that have been filed against St. Louis and surrounding municipalities claiming they run debtors’ prisons.

One similar but unrelated lawsuit against St. Louis detailed abhorrent conditions inside the city’s medium security jail called The Workhouse. Those plaintiffs claim they were subjected to filthy conditions, including seeing a fellow female prisoner suffer a miscarriage due to the denial of medical treatment and a jail worker get bitten by a snake.

The debate over bail reform intensified last April after a nonprofit group called The Bail Project, which provides bail for those with financial need, bailed out Samuel Scott after he spent five days in jail on a misdemeanor domestic violence charge for hitting his wife, Marcia Johnson. Hours after his release, Scott allegedly brutally beat his wife, who later died from her injuries.

The controversy regarding the waiting list to receive a public defender has also intensified. The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a group of indigent arrestees, filed a class action on Friday against Missouri in Cole County, seeking an order declaring the waiting list to be a violation of their right to due process and an order appointing them counsel immediately or dropping the charges against them.

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