Former acting attorney general criticizes Calhoun, Ga., bonding practices

Former acting attorney general criticizes Calhoun, Ga., bonding practices

November 22nd, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, May 8, 2017, while testifying before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing: "Russian Interference in the 2016 United States Election." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Photo by The Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates signed a brief Monday criticizing Calhoun, Ga., officials' use of bail bonds in municipal court.

"A bail system that indiscriminately jails indigent individuals charged with misdemeanors based solely on their economic status while immediately releasing those who can afford to post a bond is inconsistent with our country's promise of equal justice," Yates said in a statement.

The brief, filed by Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, was in support of Maurice Walker, a man with a mental disorder whom Calhoun police arrested in September 2015. Officers were responding to a 911 call about a man who looked drunk on the side of the road. They charged him with being a pedestrian under the influence.

As was the city's policy at the time, he remained at the local jail with a bond of $160. The city relied on a bail schedule for misdemeanor cases, setting the same bond for every person who had been charged with the same crime. The policy did not account for whether a defendant was too poor to pay the bond.

Days after Walker's arrest, attorneys with the Southern Center for Human Rights began to represent him. And ever since, arguments between civil rights lawyers and attorneys for the city have bounced through federal courts. Calhoun has since changed its policy, and justices with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals are considering whether the new rules are constitutional.

Yates, along with 30 other prosecutors and police chiefs across the country, say Calhoun's rules still allow for discrimination against poor people. The group signed an amicus brief, which is a court filing by people not directly involved in a case. The group is asking the judges to consider their arguments anyway, telling the judges they have relevant opinions.

Calhoun City Attorney George Govignon did not return a call or email seeking comment on the case Tuesday. Neither did Abby Grozine, an Atlanta attorney who has represented the city.

In January 2016, four months after Walker's arrest, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Murphy issued a preliminary injunction and told city officials their policy discriminated against the poor. Calhoun officials objected to the ruling. In March 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city, saying Murphy's original order was too vague.

At the time, Murphy simply told the city to create a bonding policy that was legal under the constitution. The higher court judges said he needed to be more specific. Meanwhile, Calhoun offered a new policy: officials would keep people in jail for no more than two days. At that point, a judge could let defendants go on their own recognizance if they couldn't afford to pay the pre-set bond.

In June, Murphy also rejected that policy. Even two days behind bars is unfair discrimination for poor people, he said. Murphy issued a second preliminary injunction, again telling the city to adopt a new policy.

That time, he offered a suggestion: defendants could sign an affidavit, swearing they don't make enough money to live above the poverty line. If the defendants were lying, they could be charged with perjury.

After Murphy's second ruling, the city appealed again. And again, the case is pending before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Calhoun attorneys are asking the court to rule that the city can, in fact, hold a defendant for up to two days before a hearing in front of a judge.

"The Standing Bail Order complies with the constitution," they wrote in a brief in September.

Mary McCord, a senior litigator at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, said Calhoun officials have not provided a good reason why they need to hold defendants for two days. She said the longest they should hold a defendant in a case like Walker's is for 24 hours.

The institute has also filed a brief in a similar case in Harris County, Texas. In that case, a district court judge issued a preliminary injunction, forcing the county to hold hearings within 24 hours. The county has appealed the decision.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.