GALVESTON, Texas – A federal court today ordered Galveston County to provide counsel at initial bail hearings for people arrested for felonies, the first federal court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment requires it. The order comes as a result of a federal class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the national ACLU, and Arnold & Porter over violations of the constitutional rights of people arrested for felonies in the county.
“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” stated Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “We are pleased that the court has ordered this change to bail hearings in Galveston County. Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”
Under the system challenged by the lawsuit, 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. In addition, indigent defendants are not provided with legal counsel to advocate for them at their initial bail hearing. Instead of providing a meaningful bail hearing, magistrates rubber-stamp bail orders that are preprinted with money bail amounts dictated by the Galveston County District Attorney’s office.
As a result of today’s order, the county is required to stop forcing arrestees to attend their initial bail hearings without anyone to represent them. Because of informal administrative changes to the bail process in response to the ACLU lawsuit, the court held there was no need for the preliminary order to specify additional procedural protections.
The lawsuit against Galveston County is a part of nationwide efforts from the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice to end wealth-based pretrial detention in Texas and across the nation.