HOUSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the national ACLU and Arnold & Porter filed a federal class-action lawsuit today against Galveston County, Texas, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.
The lawsuit was brought against the County itself, as well as each of the County’s judges who hear felonies and misdemeanors, the County magistrates, and the District Attorney. This is the first filing by the ACLU to include the District Attorney as a defendant in bail reform litigation. It seeks an immediate and permanent change to an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against people who are financially strapped.
Those who cannot afford to pay money bail amounts determined by the county’s bail schedule are detained for a week or longer, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay the money bail amounts are freed until trial. Galveston County’s district attorneys are involved in setting bail amounts for felony charges, often recommending bail amounts even higher than what the bail schedule suggests.
“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Our client is seeking one thing: a fair hearing. Rich or poor, everyone should have a meaningful chance for a judge to hear them out before they are locked in a jail cell - but that’s not what’s happening in Galveston County.”
The lawsuit argues that Galveston County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps people in jail if they can’t afford bail, while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, and communities. With each day in jail, the person’s chances for a fair trial diminish as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many who are innocent nonetheless plead guilty simply to end the ordeal.
“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Texas and across the country,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Galveston’s bail system disregards the presumption of innocence, destroys families, and negatively affects jobs, and homes.”
The suit, filed on behalf of one plaintiff representing a class in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, accuses county officials of operating a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the right to counsel, the right to due process, and equal protection under the law.
“Studies consistently show that individuals who are held in jail until trial are more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sentenced to prison, than those who are released pending trial,” said Christopher Odell, an attorney with Arnold & Porter. “Our goal is to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair to everyone in Galveston County, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.”
The plaintiff Aaron Booth, age 36, was arrested on April 8 for drug possession. He cannot afford the $20,000 money bail required by the court’s bail schedule. Mr. Booth fears losing his job because he is in jail; a job he needs to help his mother afford her monthly expenses.
Galveston’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary, the lawsuit argues. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount. If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically.
Those who cannot pay the pre-determined bail amount must remain in jail indefinitely.
The lawsuit against Galveston County is a continuation of efforts from the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice to end wealth-based bail detention in Texas and across the nation. This January, a related lawsuit aimed at ending Dallas County’s disciriminatory, wealth based bail practices was filed by the ACLU of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project.
The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — is focused on bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. Thirty-seven ACLU state affiliates are spearheading efforts to end this unjust system.