Third Circuit Sees Need |for Bail Reform

     (CN) — A man forced to plead no-contest to theft charges because he could not afford bail but needed to support his newborn child cannot sue the officers who jailed him, the Third Circuit ruled, indicating its lack of power to remedy inequality in the bail system.
     U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Chagares outlined the dispute in his 12-page opinion.
     In fall 2012, Joseph Curry read in the newspaper that there was a warrant out for his arrest for a theft of items worth $130.27 at a Wal-Mart store in Lower Macungie Township, Pennsylvania.
     Curry claimed he had never been to that Wal-Mart store. He added that the store surveillance video would verify he was not the thief, but store security refused to look at it. State troopers also allegedly refused to review the tape and said the courts would “sort it out.”
     Curry turned himself in, but was unable to afford his $20,000 bail.
     While imprisoned, Curry missed the birth of his child, lost his job, and feared his family would lose their home and vehicle.
     He spent three months in jail waiting for his case to proceed, during which time he was charged with more thefts. Those charges were dropped when a second detective realized Curry was not the right man.
     Ultimately, Curry pled no-contest to the misdemeanor theft charges so he could return home, although he still maintains he is innocent.
     As part of his plea, Curry must pay restitution of $130.27 to Wal-Mart, plus prosecution costs, and serve two years of probation.
     In court, Curry sued the police officers that arrested him and Wal-Mart for malicious prosecution and false arrest, but a federal judge dismissed the case.
     “The circumstances of this case appear to exemplify what can be described as a flaw in our system of justice — in particular, the inequity bail can create in criminal proceedings,” Judge Chagares said, writing for a three-judge panel.
     The appeal court’s opinion notes the controversy over the inequality of the bail system in New York City, which keeps 54 percent of those arrested in jail until their cases are resolved because they cannot afford bail of $2,500 or less.
     New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to reform the system, saying, “Some people are being detained based on the size of their bank account, not the risk they pose.”
     Judge Chagares echoed this sentiment. “In our system of justice, the access to wealth is what often determines whether a defendant is freed or must stay in jail,” he wrote in the Sept. 1 opinion. “Further, those unable to pay who remain in jail may not have the ‘luxury’ of awaiting a trial on the merits of their charges; they are often forced to accept a plea deal to leave the jail environment and be freed.”
     However, the Third Circuit panel said it could not remedy the injustice Curry faced, because his no-contest plea bars a malicious prosecution claim against all defendants.
     “Curry’s inability to post bail deprived him not only of his freedom, but also of his ability to seek redress for the potentially unconstitutional prosecution that landed him in jail in the first place,” Chagares said.
     To rule otherwise, the panel said, would imply that Curry’s conviction was invalid, which would be inconsistent with his plea.
     “While we highlight a problem in our system of justice, we cannot offer a complete solution — though we are aware of bail reform efforts under way,” Chagares said. “We hope those efforts will ensure equal justice under the law, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay.”

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