ACLU Sues Galveston County and District Attorney for discriminatory bail practices

(Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

GALVESTON, Texas— The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and Arnold & Porter has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Galveston County, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.

The lawsuit  alleges that the county’s Judge’s, Magistrates, and the District Attorney’s hold alleged criminals 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 diminishes as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many who are innocent usually plead guilty simply to end the ordeal.

This is the first filing by the ACLU to include the District Attorney as a defendant in bail reform litigation.

The plaintiff Aaron Booth, age 36, was arrested on Apr. 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 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.”

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 predetermined bail amount must remain in jail indefinitely.

“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 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. The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice hopes to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system. They also plan to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation.

“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.”