OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - A federal judge refused to toss a constitutional challenge to San Francisco's cash bail system, saying a class of pretrial detainees can pursue a 14th Amendment claim against San Francisco County Sheriff Vicki Hennessy.
U.S. District Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed only part of a putative class action claiming the city and county of San Francisco unconstitutionally criminalizes poverty by jailing poor arrestees because they can't afford to post bail. The judge nixed the claim for monetary damages against the county but kept the equal protection and due process claims in place.
The lawsuit was brought by two women arrested in October 2015 - Riana Buffin,19, and Crystal Patterson, 29 - Buffin on suspicion of grand theft and Patterson on suspicion of assault. Both were released without charges after spending several days behind bars because neither could afford bail: Buffin's bond was set at $30,000, Patterson's at $150,000.
Gonzalez Rogers found the county immune from money damages under the 11th Amendment since the county sheriff is actually a state actor. But she ruled that the plaintiffs can still pursue a 14th Amendment violation claim against Hennessy.
However, to the extent plaintiffs seek declaratory or injunctive relief against the sheriff for her allegedly unconstitutional conduct, the sole claim of violation of plaintiffs' 14th Amendment rights may proceed against her, Gonzalez-Rogers wrote.
She also threw out the class' claim against California Attorney General Kamala Harris, rejecting their argument that 11th Amendment sovereign immunity protections do not insulate Harris from a potential injunction to bar her from enforcing an unconstitutional law. The plaintiffs had cited Ex Parte Young, an 11th Amendment immunity-from-suit exemption that applies when a state official has some connection with enforcing the law, saying it applies because Harris enforces the bail system to the extent that she can prosecute those who violate it.
Gonzalez Rogers disagreed, writing, "The generic notion that the attorney general can assist a district attorney in prosecuting crimes or enforcing the Penal Code is too remote to the function challenged in the [third amended complaint]. Thus plaintiffs have failed to allege a 'fairly direct' connection between the attorney general's actions or authority and plaintiffs' claims."
Andrea Guzman with the San Francisco City Attorney's Office said the city is "pleased with the court's decision and evaluating our next steps."
Phil Telfeyan with the Equal Justice Initiative, who represents Buffin and Patterson, also called the ruling a victory.
"It allows our claims against San Francisco's wealth-based detention scheme to move forward, and it requires Sheriff Hennessy to state her official position regarding the unfairness of money bail," he said in an email. "Most importantly, the decision allows the class' claims for declaratory and injunctive relief to move forward. We trust that Sheriff Hennessy will continue to recognize the inherent inequality in a system that frees the rich and jails the poor."
The federal lawsuit is one of two putative class actions against the monetary bail system in California. The other case is led by 50 year-old Gary Welchen in Sacramento and names Harris as a defendant. Welchen, who is homeless, was arrested for burglary in January and held on a $10,000 bond.
U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley in Sacramento dismissed Welchen's equal protection claim earlier this month, but unlike Gonzalez Rogers found that Harris isn't immune from suit under the Ex Parte Young exception.
Of that part of the ruling, Telfeyan said "that success in the case could reverberate across the state."
He added, "We will continue to litigate both cases aggressively to prove that money
bail discriminates based on wealth-status, creating two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and another for people who are poor. Jailing people simply because they are too poor to afford money bail offends basic principles of fairness that are deeply rooted in our society."
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