Lawsuit: Ascension Parish Court bail system discriminates against the poor, who may languish in jail for days or weeks _lowres

Rebecca Marie Snow

Ascension Parish’s bail procedures keep poor criminal defendants accused of traffic and other petty crimes in jail for days or weeks in violation of their constitutional rights, a new class-action lawsuit brought by public interest civil rights attorneys claims.

The plaintiff — Rebecca M. Snow, 33, of Gonzales — is accused of shoplifting in Gonzales.

Her attorneys have asked a federal court in Baton Rouge to declare the bail system a violation of defendants’ due process and equal protection rights and to halt its continued use.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, the suit takes aim at the unfailing application of Ascension’s generic “bail schedule,” a process the suit says gives poor defendants no other options to gain their release if they can’t afford bail. With unsecured bail, for example, defendants don’t pay upfront but promise in writing to show up for court or risk having to pay the bail.

“The Defendants’ policy has no place in modern American law,” the lawsuit charges.

The suit names Ascension Parish Judge Marilyn Lambert and Ascension Parish Sheriff Jeff Wiley as defendants.

Wiley operates Ascension Parish Prison near Donaldsonville while Lambert oversees Ascension Parish Court in Gonzales, a special small-claims, misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile court created by the Legislature in 1976 only for Ascension and its municipalities. Crimes adjudicated in the court carry penalties of no more than $1,000 and jail time of six months.

The judges of the 23rd Judicial District, a three-parish state district court that includes Ascension, handle juvenile cases, major civil suits and felony criminal offenses, such as murders and rapes. Bail procedures for defendants facing those kinds of charges are not the subject of this suit.

In addition to the long-term challenge, the civil rights suit also is seeking an immediate temporary halt to the Parish Court’s bail practice. A hearing is set for 10 a.m. Friday before U.S. District Judge Shelly D. Dick.

Katie Schwartzmann, co-director of the New Orleans office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said if Snow prevails Friday, other defendants in a similar position could be released also.

She said if the case is granted class-action status, the litigation could affect hundreds, if not thousands, of defendants in the future.

The questioned schedule systematically sets out bail amounts for traffic and other minor offenses, ranging from $112 to $1,169.50 per count. The schedule is the reason defendants in Ascension often have bail down to the penny.

Defendants who have the cash can get out immediately, the suit claims, while defendants who may have the exact same charge but don’t have the same cash are stuck in jail until they can see a judicial officer.

“What it comes down to is you’re locking a person up solely because they are unable to pay, whereas a person who has the ability to pay the money walks right out of jail,” Schwartzmann said.

Sheriff Wiley points out what he sees as a contradiction in the civil rights groups’ arguments that the indigent should be allowed to go free pending trial. He said those defendants within 60 days would be at trial anyway and could likely be ordered to pay fines that they also could not afford.

“If they don’t have money, what happens then? Do they go to jail then or are their rights being violated then?” Wiley asked.

Schwartzmann called the bail process “fundamentally unfair” and said many of those indigent defendants are living close to the financial edge already. Days in jail can be devastating because defendants can lose jobs, children and their homes.

Snow is a mother of two and has no regular income but receives about $500 per month in food assistance from the state, her suit says.

Wiley said 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 had previously been caught doing the same thing. She had previously been banned from the store, Wiley said.

Snow was in jail early Wednesday evening in lieu of a combined bail of $579, online booking records show.

The lawsuit details Snow’s unsuccessful attempt to have her bail reconsidered once she was in jail.

Snow was given a hearing via video with an unnamed judicial officer. Snow asked her to review her bail, the suit says.

The officer refused and said it was not her function to review bail. Sheriff’s deputies told Snow that she was speaking to the wrong judge about bail but they could not immediately say when Snow would appear before the correct one to raise the issue, the suit says.

The deputies said they would not know that until a docket sheet is sent the morning of the hearing, the suit says.

Under the bail system, video hearings where counsel is appointed and pretrial release is considered happen about three times per week but those hearings can be canceled, potentially extending the time in jail, the suit says.

One of Judge Lambert’s staff members declined comment on her behalf Wednesday but said the judge is aware of the suit.

Wiley said he must adhere to the cash bond schedule Lambert prepares but believes the use of such a schedule is legal and widespread.

“And I’ll tell you, it makes perfect sense to me,” he said.

Others involved in bringing the suit are the Washington, D.C.-based Equal Justice Under the Law nonprofit and William Quigley, a Loyola University New Orleans law professor who leads a poverty law clinic.

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.