Buffin v. San Francisco

Equal Justice Under Law is arguing that San Francisco’s money bail system is an unconstitutional, discriminatory wealth-based detention scheme that must come to an end.

The City and County of San Francisco keeps 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 can simply purchase his or her freedom. In fact, for the rich, the cost is 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. (It’s more expensive to be poor, as the cruel saying goes). 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.


November 1, 2016: Sheriff Vicky Hennessy, in a filing written by City Attorney Dennis Herrera on November 1, 2016, made an historic statement that she will not defend money bail in court because:

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

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.”

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.

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.


case details

The Complaint

Status: Active

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: This is a civil rights action arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 28 U.S.C. § 2201, et seq., and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This Court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.




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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.