LAREDO, Texas — The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the law firm of Gibbs & Bruns LLP recently filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 150 people detained as potential witnesses for federal prosecutions at La Salle County Regional Detention Center near Laredo. None of the people detained have had a hearing or opportunity to contest the legality of their detention.
The petition was filed on behalf of six people who have been detained between three and six months, and who seek to represent all others detained as material witnesses in Laredo. The petitioners were never charged with a crime, but were automatically detained and issued a $25,000 cash bond without access to a lawyer. The petition contends that these practices violate federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution.
“The government cannot automatically detain people, automatically impose an unaffordable bail amount, and hold human beings in jail for months without a hearing,” said David Donatti, attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “The right to liberty is fundamental, and the government must comply with the Constitution before stripping anyone of that right. Our laws, Constitution, and our basic human dignity demand more.”
“We are honored to work with the ACLU of Texas on this important matter,” said Caitlin Halpern, an associate at Gibbs & Bruns. “It is our responsibility as lawyers to provide zealous representation to people in our society who have been wrongfully deprived of fundamental rights but cannot otherwise obtain or afford legal assistance, and we are eager to fight for our clients and class members experiencing the same harms.”
The six petitioners are currently detained at La Salle County Regional Detention Center in Encinal, Texas.
- Gloria Carolina Manzo-Hernanez has been detained for more than three months since her arrest on March 3, 2020. Though she is a mother and provider to four children, she was told that she would have to “wait it out.”
- Victor Zepeta- Jasso has been detained since March 12, 2020. He has not spoken to his wife and three young daughters since his arrest. At his first and only court appearance, he was told he would not be free until the end of the criminal case against an alleged smuggler.
- Moises Amadeo Mancia-Mendoza has been detained for the same period. He fled El Salvador due to violence, but instead of receiving an asylum hearing, he was detained as a material witness. He was advised that his right to counsel was unnecessary, because nothing could be done to expedite his release.
- Mercy Rocio Duchi-Vargas has been detained for more than six months. Having fled religious persecution, her husband is seeking asylum in New York. Mercy is separated from her daughter as well. The criminal defendants against whom Duchi-Vargas is designated to testify were released on unsecured bonds in February, yet she remains in custody.
- Jatzeel Antonio Cuevas-Cortes is set to be a material witness in the same criminal proceeding as Duchi-Vargas. He has been detained for more than six months. Cuevas-Cortes has consistently been told by government officers that there is nothing to do but wait.
- Victor Manuel Nuñez-Hernandez was detained on March 18, 2020. He too was told that he was automatically detained for an estimated 30 to 90 days, and that there was no recourse for release before the end of criminal proceedings against the defendant.
The petition details that all class members have been detained without findings as to the necessity of detention, with a blanket $25,000 bond, and without ever having had a hearing. The ACLU of Texas, represented by David Donatti and Andre Segura, and Gibbs & Bruns, including attorneys Caitlin Halpern, Barrett Reasoner, and Sam Cruse, are seeking to end these unlawful and systematic practices.