A federal judge has rejected Calhoun, Ga., city officials' request to keep inmates in jail for up to two days before their first appearance hearings.
As part of a pending lawsuit over its practice of keeping municipal court inmates who can't afford to pay bond in jail, the city proposed a plan in a court filing last month: A judge would have up to 48 hours to see the inmates. After the hearing, if the judge agreed that the inmates couldn't afford to pay, the inmates could leave.
But on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy said the plan is unconstitutional.
"It permits individuals who have sufficient resources to post bond [or to have one posted for them] to be released immediately, while individuals who do not have those resources must wait forty-eight hours for a hearing," Murphy wrote in an order granting a preliminary injunction against the city.
A lawsuit against Calhoun has been pending since September 2015, when lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights said the city's municipal court practices were dangerous for poor people. The organization represented Maurice Walker, a 54-year-old man with a mental disorder that required medication.
Calhoun police arrested Walker on Sept. 3, 2015, after someone called 911 to report a man who looked drunk on the side of the road. The city relied on preset bonds for misdemeanor arrests, meaning that the amount paid to get out of jail was strictly based on the charges. If someone couldn't pay, he waited until the next municipal court date, which usually occurred on Mondays.
In Walker's case, according to the lawsuit, he couldn't afford the $160 bond. His attorneys argued that the city's set-up was unconstitutional. Meanwhile, municipal court officials in nearby cities monitored the case, to see whether it would affect their own bond rules.
In January 2016, Murphy granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Walker, saying Calhoun's bail policy violated the 14th Amendment because it keeps poor people in jail. The city objected, though, and in March of this year, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Murphy's injunction.
Originally, Murphy ordered the city to create a bond policy that would "comply with the Constitution." The higher court judges said Murphy needed to provide more specific instructions.
On Friday, he wrote in his second order that Calhoun Municipal Court and police officers could let inmates sign affidavits if they said they couldn't afford to pay the bond. The affidavits, which could be prosecuted as perjury if found to be untrue, would ask defendants to list their salaries, expenses and whether they earn less annually than the federal poverty line — $24,600 for a family of four.
"This Order sends a clear message to Calhoun and other cities that keep people in jail only because they cannot afford to purchase their release," Sarah Geraghty, one of Walker's attorneys, said in a statement Tuesday.
Since January 2016, court filings show, Calhoun court officials allowed all inmates facing misdemeanors to leave jail without paying any bond. Court Clerk Matthew Silver wrote in an affidavit that this motivated more people to skip their hearings. He said the judge issued 150 percent more bench warrants for failure to appear in the 15 months after January 2016, compared to the 15 months before.
"The police department and the municipal court will face an endless cycle of arrests on bench warrants, incarcerations and re-release for inability to pay," an attorney for the city wrote in a filing.
Though it is an enforceable order that city officials must obey, Murphy's injunction does not end the case. Lawyers on both sides can continue to argue the issue.
Andy Davis, an attorney for the city, said the order will give Calhoun Municipal Court officials more options than the January 2016 order did. In particular, he said, the requirement for indigent inmates to sign an affidavit is helpful for the city.
He said city officials are reviewing Murphy's order before deciding whether to implement any changes.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.