Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis applauded a federal appeals court that ruled Wednesday the county’s wealth-based bail policy violates the Constitution because it jails misdemeanor defendants simply because they cannot pay money bail.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals largely ruled against Harris County in an appeal that the county brought in O’Donnell v. Harris County. In an opinion drafted by Judge Edith Brown Clement, the appellate court held, “We are satisfied that the court had sufficient evidence to conclude that Harris County’s use of secured bail violated equal protection.”
The panel also dismissed Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez from the lawsuit and directed U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to craft a narrower injunction. However, the appeals court judges held that the county must follow Judge Rosenthal’s injunctive procedures until she crafts new procedures that more directly address the constitutional violations.
“With this decision, the conservative 5th Circuit is telling Harris County that it’s unconstitutional to have two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Commissioner Ellis said. “Yet Harris County has already spent more than $5 million defending a morally and legally indefensible bail system that violates the Constitution and punishes people simply because they are poor. The ruling is a significant victory for justice and offers further proof that it is time for Harris County to settle this lawsuit and enact meaningful reforms that treat all people equally and fairly under the law.”
Judge Rosenthal entered a preliminary injunction against Harris County last April after finding that the county treats indigent misdemeanor defendants unequally solely because they cannot afford money bail. She further found that Harris County’s pretrial detention procedures for misdemeanor cases lack due process because defendants are not informed of the significance of being able to afford money bail. Her preliminary injunction required Sheriff Gonzalez to release indigent misdemeanor defendants within 24 hours of arrest if they could not afford to post a money bond.
The bail lawsuit was filed in May 2016 by Maranda Lynn O’Donnell, who spent more than two days in jail because she could not afford $2,500 bond after being arrested on charges of driving with an invalid license. Her lawsuit was merged with another lawsuit filed by two misdemeanor defendants, Loetha Shanta McGruder and Robert Ryan Ford, who were locked up when they could not afford money bail.
Last year, Commissioner Ellis filed an amicus brief in Judge Rosenthal’s court that discussed Harris County’s history of discriminatory treatment of poor defendants of color and that agreed with the O’Donnell plaintiffs’ assertions that the bail scheme is unconstitutional.
In addition to Judge Clement, the three-judge panel that ruled on the county’s appeal also consisted of Edward Prado and Catharina Haynes. The county now can seek permission for rehearing of its appeal by that panel or to have its appeal heard by all the judges on the 5th Circuit. It also can seek permission to have the 5th Circuit’s decision reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Judge Rosenthal stated in her April order that she would schedule a trial on the merits of the lawsuit, but also warned that the plaintiffs have a great likelihood of winning that trial. The trial is expected to be scheduled soon.
Commissioner Ellis stated, “With regard to the remedy, I am confident that once additional evidence has been presented, the federal courts will implement a bail system in Harris County that protects the constitutional rights of everyone.”