Federal appeals court says Orleans judge owes $300K tax bill _lowres

Harry Cantrell

A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday accuses a New Orleans magistrate judge of turning a blind eye to the inability of poor defendants to pay a "$2,500 minimum bail" and threatening to jail defense attorneys who argue their clients should be released on a lower bail. 

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, claims Criminal District Court Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell refuses to release nonviolent arrestees on their own recognizance and instead requires they post bonds through companies that generate fees that support his court's operation.

"Judge Cantrell not only fails to consider the particular circumstances of individual cases, but he threatens lawyers with contempt for seeking lower bonds for their clients or even raising the subject of alternative conditions for release," said Katie Schwartzmann, an attorney with the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. "It's locking up people for being poor, plain and simple."

The threat of contempt places a defense attorney "in the impossible position of having to weigh her own personal freedom against her obligation to advocate for her client’s constitutional right to a meaningful bail hearing," the lawsuit says. 

Cantrell did not immediately return a call seeking comment. 

The lawsuit cites transcripts from a number of bail hearings in which Cantrell has told defense attorneys he will not consider setting a bail less than $2,500, regardless of the crime and the defendant's financial resources.

"You don't have to ask me for that anymore," he said during one such proceeding in January. 

"We don't go any lower than $2,500 in this court," he said during a December hearing.

The lawsuit claims Cantrell routinely violates the rights of defendants by disregarding due process and keeping them in jail solely because of their "inability to make a monetary payment." 

"Those arrestees wealthy enough to pay are released almost immediately after defendant Cantrell sets their bail," the lawsuit says. "Some poorer arrestees eventually make arrangements with private bail bond companies, after spending days or weeks in jail. And many others, who are too poor to come up with enough money, are left to languish in jail until the resolution of their case."

The lawsuit cites the case of Adrian Caliste, a retired laborer booked this month on counts of drug possession and traffic violations. According to the lawsuit, Cantrell appointed Caliste a public defender because he could not afford to hire a lawyer. But the judge "made no further inquiry into Mr. Caliste's ability to afford any particular amount of secured bail or whether non-financial conditions of release would be appropriate before imposing a total $5,000 secured bail upon Mr. Caliste," the lawsuit says.

It says Cantrell did not find that Caliste posed a flight risk or "imminent danger to the community," which would justify keeping him locked up. 

"Mr. Caliste can afford neither the $5,000 bail nor the 12-13 percent of that total that a bail bondsman would charge," the lawsuit says. "As a result, he waits in jail until he receives his next retirement benefit, which he hopes his family will use to pay a for-profit bonding company."

The lawsuit contends Cantrell has a conflict of interest because his court receives "1.8 percent of each bail bond transaction," funding that accounts for up to 25 percent of the Magistrate Court's annual budget.

"The infrastructure of his court — from the salary of his staff to the paper in his printer — depends upon the continued generation of money from for-profit commercial surety fees, which are entirely dependent on his judicial decisions," the lawsuit says. 

The suit was assigned to U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon. 

Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.