A Gonzales woman accused of shoplifting who has challenged the constitutionality of how the bail system in Ascension Parish is applied to poor defendants facing misdemeanor charges has been released from jail.
U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick on Thursday evening ordered Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley to release Rebecca M. Snow, 33, from jail immediately without need to pay her bail or secure a bail bond. The ruling came after Snow’s attorneys claimed in a lawsuit that Ascension’s bail system deprives Snow and hundreds of other poor misdemeanor defendants of their civil rights by leaving them no options for release from jail if they can’t afford bail.
“Considering her extreme indigence, Snow poses little appreciable risk of non-appearance in misdemeanor court proceedings and the nature of the pending charges against her are not indicative of any risk to the community,” Dick wrote.
Less than 24 hours after Dick’s ruling and Snow’s release, attorneys on all sides of the dispute filed a joint motion Friday telling Dick they were planning settlement talks.
Online booking records show that Snow, a mother of two children, was released 5:30 p.m. Thursday after spending three days in Ascension Parish Prison near Donaldsonville in lieu of $579 bail.
Snow was arrested Monday on counts of misdemeanor theft and remaining in a place after being forbidden. Gonzales police caught Snow shoplifting Monday at a big-box retail outlet where she previously has been caught doing the same thing, Wiley has said, adding that she had been banned from the store.
Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge by several civil rights lawyers, the suit takes aim at the alleged regimented application of Ascension’s generic “bail schedule,” a process the suit claims gives poor defendants no options to gain their release if they can’t afford bail but allows those with more means to leave jail promptly if they face minor charges.
The suit claims the schedule systematically sets out bail amounts for traffic and other minor offenses, ranging from $112 to $1,169.50 per count, without regard to the facts of individual cases.
Ascension Parish Judge Marilyn Lambert and Wiley have been named as defendants.
Wiley operates the jail, while Lambert oversees Ascension Parish Court in Gonzales, a small-claims, misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile court created by the Legislature in 1976 only for Ascension and its municipalities.
Dick issued a temporary restraining order Thursday to secure Snow’s release but rejected applying that order more broadly to other potential class-action plaintiffs.
Dick also set an evidentiary hearing for Tuesday morning to consider whether to convert the temporary order into a preliminary injunction, a more permanent but not a final order. However, attorneys asked Dick on Friday to reset the hearing for 9:30 a.m. Thursday to allow for settlement discussions.
Dick found that if she did not grant the temporary order, Snow would have remained in jail until her initial appearance in court or her arraignment — a time when defendants make their initial plea to their charges — because she could not afford bail.
“Ms. Snow has sufficiently demonstrated that this threat of injury is immediate and irreparable,” Dick wrote.
Dick added that based on Snow’s allegations and evidence and on state criminal procedure, there was a “substantial likelihood” that Snow would succeed with her broader claims about the bail system. Her attorneys want Dick to declare the bail system a violation of defendants’ due process and equal protection rights and to halt its continued use.
Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and one of the public interest lawyers who brought the suit, declined comment Friday.
Wiley said he had not yet seen Dick’s order but released Snow after an order from Judge Lambert on Thursday.
“I don’t know if she ordered it or not,” Wiley said Friday of Judge Dick’s ruling on Snow’s release from jail. “Judge Lambert authorized her release.”
Wiley said he planned to meet with his attorney Monday. Lambert has declined comment about the case.
Dick wrote the state code provides five ways for defendants to deal with bail for criminal offenses, including methods that don’t require up-front cash or secured assets, but Snow was offered only two. Both of those options required funds or assets Snow claims she does not have: paying the bail or seeking a secured bail bond.
Dick also wrote that the state code says judges and magistrates must consider 10 factors in setting bail, including a defendant’s ability to pay, and noted that Snow was denied an opportunity to have the bail amount reviewed earlier this week.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.