Federal Ruling in Calhoun, Ga. Case is Why We Can't Stop Pushing Back on Money Bail
In a ruling that impacts how quickly poor defendants can get out of jail across the country, U.S. Court of Appeals justices supported a bail system in Calhoun, Georgia, this week.
In a 2-1 decision, the justices said Wednesday that the city's bond rules are constitutional, even though defendants who can't afford bail remain behind bars for up to 48 hours after their arrests. Two days in jail does not cause unreasonable harm to a person's life, the justices argued.
To an extent, they said, governments can offer different services to people based on what they can afford.
"It upholds the core of America's bail system," said Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition, which filed a brief in support of the city and is tracking similar federal cases.
Attorneys for Maurice Walker, a man arrested in Calhoun on a pedestrian-under-the-influence charge in September 2015, argued that the city's system is unconstitutional. Walker has a mental health disability and lived off a $530 monthly Social Security check. His attorneys said he should not stay in jail longer than other defendants just because he can't afford bail.
At the time, defendants remained behind bars until Calhoun's next municipal court date, held every Monday. But in Walker's case, court was canceled on Labor Day. He would have to stay in jail for 11 days, though he was released after his attorneys sued the city.
Since then, Calhoun has created a new bond order that guarantees defendants go before a judge within 48 hours of their arrests. In theory, a judge will release them from jail if they prove they can't afford bond. (In practice, City Administrator Eddie Peterson said, Calhoun releases everybody without bond as soon they get booked at the jail while Walker's case plays out in federal court.)
At issue is the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which prevents discrimination. Here, Walker's attorneys say Calhoun's bond order discriminates against him because he is in poverty. While richer defendants get out of jail immediately, poor defendants such as Walker are stuck behind bars for up to two days.
But not every group is treated the same under the Equal Protection Clause. The law creates different levels of "scrutiny" based on what type of protection the group deserves. For example, race and gender groups receive "strict scrutiny," making it harder for a government agency to discriminate against them.
Walker's attorneys say poverty should be treated as a "strict scrutiny" group. This would mean a bail system could not discriminate based on wealth at all.
But the justices ruled Wednesday that people in poverty do not get that much protection. To an extent, they said, governments can discriminate based on wealth — as long as people are not entirely deprived of a service.
For example, the post office can legally offer faster delivery for an extra fee and the University of Georgia can charge students thousands of dollars every semester.
"The court would be flooded with litigation" if public agencies couldn't discriminate based on wealth, Justice Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote in the majority opinion Wednesday. "Innumerable government programs — heretofore considered entirely benign — would be in grave danger."
In the case of bail, Clayton said, the entire system would be upended if jails could not discriminate at all based on wealth.
"I don't even know what a less discriminatory alternative would be," he told the Times Free Press, "other than to say, 'Everybody gets out.' It would put the government in a box."
Writing the minority opinion, Justice Beverly Martin said ending discrimination in jails based on wealth would not extend to other government agencies, such as the post office. When it comes to protection of certain groups, like people in poverty, she wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court allows for "limiting principles" that apply to justice.
Martin argued that the two-day period a defendant will wait before seeing a judge can be crippling.
"Being jailed for 48 hours is more than a mere inconvenience," she wrote. "There are very real consequences for detained indigents. They can lose their jobs. They can lose their homes and transportation. Their family connections can be disrupted. And all this is to say nothing of the emotional and psychological toll a prison stay can have on an indigent person and her family members."
Court cases challenging the 48-hour rule for inmates in poverty have popped up across the country. Clayton said the issue began in January 2015, when police arrested Christy Dawn Varden outside a Clanton, Alabama, Walmart on charges of shoplifting, resisting arrest, failure to obey a police officer and possession of drug paraphernalia.
Under the city's bond order at the time, defendants could get released immediately if they paid $500 per charge. In Varden's case, she needed to pay $2,000. She also could wait to see a judge, but municipal court met only on Tuesday afternoons.
Attorneys with Equal Justice Under Law, which would later represent Walker in Calhoun, said Varden was physically and mentally handicapped. They said $200 in food stamps represented her only monthly income. A month after they filed the lawsuit, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed a statement of interest in the case, writing, "bail practices that are indifferent to an individual's ability to pay are incompatible with our Constitution."
That summer, Varden's attorneys and city officials reached a settlement. (Varden died a month before the settlement.) The city agreed to hold court hearings every 48 hours so poor defendants could explain their financial problems to a judge.
Since then, attorneys have challenged the 48-hour rule in other parts of the country. On Aug. 14, justices with the 5th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a similar order from Houston in a 2-1 decision. Meanwhile, a U.S. District Court judge will hold a trial on the 48-hour rule in San Francisco on Sept. 17.
Clayton said he expects the rule to stay in effect. But he would not be surprised to see the issue reach the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.