Federal Appeals Court Throws Out Punitive Bail for Misdemeanor Arrests

A Federal Appeals Court has ruled that Texas judges cannot impose high bail that they know people charged with misdemeanor crimes cannot afford, under the guise of insuring that the individual will show up for trial, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.

Ruling in a Houston case, the Fifth Court of Appeals, known as the most conservative court of the nine appellate courts, says in a unanimous decision that violates constitutional protections against losing liberty or property without being convicted by a jury.

"The court rejected the argument that imposing secured bonds served the County’s interest in ensuring the arrestee appeared at the future court date and committed no further crime," the court ruled.  "The court’s review of reams of empirical data suggested the opposite: that “release on secured financial conditions does not assure  better  rates  of  appearance  or  of  law-abiding  conduct  before  trial  compared   to   release   on   unsecured   bonds   or   non-financial   conditions   of   supervision.”

 Instead, the County’s true  purpose  was “to  achieve pretrial detention  of  misdemeanor  defendants  who  are  too  poor  to  pay,  when  those  defendants would promptly be released if they could pay.” In short, “secured money  bail  function[ed]  as  a  pretrial  detention  order”  against  the  indigent  misdemeanor arrestees."

It has been estimated that as many as one half to two thirds of the inmates in urban county jails have never been convicted of any crime whatsoever, and are there only because they cannot afford to post bail for relatively minor offenses.  

In addition to being unconstitutional, the court said that creates unreasonable financial burdens for taxpayers, and additional work for jail officials.

The use of high bonds to insure that a person will show up for trial in Texas has long been a concern of civil rights groups like the Constitutional Accountability Center, which was a party to the lawsuit. 

"This is a huge, precedent-setting ruling that holds that state and local governments may not use the bail system to impose pretrial detention across-the-board on those too poor to pay," CAC Civil Rights Director David Gans said.  "It speaks volumes that Judge Clement, a staunchly conservative jurist, found the Constitution’s promise of equal justice applies both to the rich and to the poor. Justice Clement found that the policy presented a “basic injustice” forbidden by the Fourteenth Amendment: Those too poor to pay “sustain an absolute deprivation of their liberty interests,” while wealthy defendants, similar in all other respects, go free. With a host of similar cases pending in other courts, Justice Clement’s analysis offers a powerful basis for ensuring equal justice for all, regardless of wealth."

The court said there are several other options available to trial courts to insure that a person who is charged with a misdemeanor offense.  The court did say the trial court is allowed to impose higher bail in domestic violence cases, due to an increased possibility that the individual will commit the same crime again while on pre trial release.

"Texas state law creates a right to bail that appropriately weighs the detainees’ interest in pretrial release and the court’s interest in securing the detainee’s attendance," the court wrote in its opinion.   "Yet, as noted, state law forbids the setting of bail as an “instrument of  oppression.”  Thus,  magistrates  may  not  impose  a  secured  bail solely for the purpose of detaining the accused. And, when the accused is indigent, setting a secured bail will, in most cases, have the same effect as a detention order. Accordingly, such decisions must reflect a careful weighing of the  individualized  factors set  forth  by  both  the state Code  of Criminal Procedure and Local Rules."

READ THE COURT'S RULING:  https://www.theusconstitution.org/sites/default/files/ODonnell.pdf

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