Buffin v. San Francisco

Equal Justice Under Law successfully argued that San Francisco’s money bail system was an unconstitutional, discriminatory wealth-based detention scheme.

The City and County of San Francisco kept some of its poorest residents in jail because of their inability to make a monetary payment. In San Francisco, the poorer you are, the worse the system treats you. A wealthy individual could simply purchase his or her freedom whereas someone without means would have to languish in jail. In fact, for the rich, the cost of bail is usually zero, because the full bail amount is returned when the case ends. For poorer individuals, however, private bail companies require a non-refundable payment of 10% and poor arrestees never see that money again. For those living on the brink of poverty, private bail companies also offer a predatory option: pay 1% of the bail amount and sign a debt agreement to finance the balance at the maximum interest rate allowable by law.

On November 1, 2016, Sheriff Vicky Hennessy, in a filing written by City Attorney Dennis Herrera on November 1, 2016, made a statement that she will not defend money bail in court. This was an historic announcement that highly influenced the proceeding case.

This two-tiered system of pretrial justice does not serve the interests of the government or the public, and unfairly discriminates against the poor.
— City Attorney Dennis Herrera

March 4, 2019: A federal judge ruled in favor of Equal Justice Under Law’s lawsuit, stating that the application of California state law requiring a bail schedule is unconstitutional. This ruling sets a historic precedent for bail reform across the country.

October 31, 2017: Equal Justice Under Law filed a motion for summary judgment, asking the court to declare money bail unconstitutional and immediately end this wealth-based detention scheme.

On the same day, the bail industry — acting as the defense since City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Sheriff Vicky Hennessy declared that they would not defend money bail last year — also filed a motion for summary judgment. Their filing trivializes the harm of pretrial detention and ignores the fundamental unconstitutionality of money bail.

October 24, 2017: California’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye released a report calling for massive reform to the money bail system and admitting that holding suspects in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay bail is unfair to people who are poor.

December 2016: In direct reaction to our work,  California Assembly member Rob Bonta and Senator Bob Hertzberg unveiled a bill to reform the state’s system saying, “California’s bail system punishes poor people simply for being poor.”


case details

Summary Judgement Decision

Summary Judgement Response

Summary Judgement Response

Motion for Summary Judgement

The Complaint

Status: Favorably Decided

Date Filed: 10/28/15

Plaintiffs: Riana Buffin and Crystal Patterson, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated

Defendants: The City and County of San Francisco, Vicki Hennessy in her official capacity as the San Francisco Sheriff, and Kamala Harris in her official capacity as the California Attorney General

Jurisdiction: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Oakland Division 

Partners: Latham & Watkins, LLP



On February 26, 2018 a U.S. District judge certified a class of San Francisco arrestees challenging the constitutionality of money bail policy. Now, if the court strikes down the money bail system, the ruling will apply to all class members, thousands of San Franciscans who are jailed solely because of their poverty.

On March 4, 2019, the judge ruled in favor of the lawsuit’s argument that the application of bail schedules is unconstitutional. This provides relief to thousands of San Franciscans and sets a precedent for ongoing bail reform efforts across the nation.