Sixth Circuit Lets Indigent Parole Violators Continue Suit

CINCINNATI (CN) – A class of parole violators who claim that a Tennessee county’s bail system is effectively “wealth-based detention” can proceed with their suit against the county and its sheriff, the Sixth Circuit ruled. 

A three-judge panel of the federal appeals court made its decision Monday, less than two weeks after the case was argued and affirmed a lower court ruling that granted the class’s request for a preliminary injunction.

The plaintiffs sued the county and several private probation companies last year, claiming their practices of setting bail amounts without consideration of a person’s ability to pay and holding those who cannot afford to pay bail in jail are unconstitutional. A district court judge ruled the class was likely to succeed and granted their motion for a preliminary injunction in February, which the county and sheriff appealed.   

Giles County, located in south central Tennessee, and Sheriff Kyle Helton argued the probationers should have sued the judges who set their bail amounts and denied them hearings but U.S. Circuit Judge Jeffrey Sutton disagreed.

Judge Sutton, a George W. Bush appointee, said the class is entitled to see injunctive relief against Helton, who acted on behalf of the state to enforce arrest warrants. Sovereign immunity does not block a suit against a public official who is “actively involved with administering” an alleged violation, the judge said, citing the 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Ex parte Young.

Helton had argued that the constitutional violation alleged by the class occurred when the judges set their bail amounts. Sutton conceded that the judge’s actions were part of the process but he outlined the court’s reasoning to allow the case to proceed.

“Consider the alleged violation to be two actions,” Sutton wrote. “Action one: A judge determines a bail amount without considering ability to pay or adequacy of alternatives. Action two: Sheriff Helton detains the probationer until she pays the bail amount.”

“The alleged constitutional violation is detention on an improperly determined bail amount. The plaintiffs might have employed a different theory and sued the judges, if not immune themselves, for their part in carrying out the alleged harm. But ‘the plaintiff is the master of the complaint’ and free to choose between legal theories. Absent some other bar, they are free to sue the sheriff,” the judge added.  

The sheriff also argued that allowing the class to proceed against him would expand the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ex parte Young but Sutton disagreed.

“[T]his objection suffers from the same flaw as the last,” Sutton wrote. “The probationers are free to structure their complaint as they wish … It also remains unclear whether the plaintiffs could structure their lawsuit by suing the judges who set the bail amounts. Judges have absolute immunity from suits based on their judicial acts, except in matters over which they clearly lack jurisdiction.”

Sutton also allowed the case to proceed against Giles County, which raised no objection to the preliminary injunction but instead chose to reserve its arguments for the permanent injunction phase of the case.

U.S. Circuit Judges John Nalbandian and Chad Readler, both appointed to the court by President Donald Trump, also sat on the panel.

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