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Federal Lawsuit Seeks Order Prohibiting Lafayette Parish Officials from Keeping Poor People in Jail After Arrest Solely Because They are Poor

LAFAYETTE, La. – A federal class action lawsuit alleges that officials of the 15th Judicial District Court and Sheriff’s Office in Lafayette routinely violate the constitutional rights of impoverished people through the use of an assembly-line system of setting secured money bail without giving any consideration to what any individual can afford to pay or to alternative, non-financial conditions of release. 

“Edward Little, the named Plaintiff in this case, is in jail tonight because he and his family cannot pay a few hundred dollars,” said Charlie Gerstein, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. “He has not been found guilty of a crime. And he has not been found to be dangerous or a flight risk. But he is in jail anyway because he does not have enough money. Hundreds of thousands of other people like Mr. Little are in jail tonight because of their poverty. This is unconstitutional, and it has to stop.” 

“These men and women certainly don’t have the ability to earn money and provide for their families while in jail, and those lucky enough to have jobs before arrest often lose them because they can’t show up for work,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center.  “It’s unfair, unwise and unconstitutional.” 

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, and the defendants are Thomas Frederick, Commissioner of Louisiana’s 15th Judicial District; Chief Judge Kristian Earles of the 15th Judicial District; and Lafayette Parish Sheriff Mark Garber.  The proposed class is represented by attorneys from the MacArthur Justice Center, Civil Rights Corps, and William P. Quigley, a veteran litigator and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. 

According to the lawsuit, the wealth-based detention scheme in Lafayette Parish violates the 14th Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. Here’s how it works: 

  • Bond is automatically set at predetermined amounts for most people arrested on suspicion of having committed a misdemeanor. For more serious charges, Commissioner Frederick sets the bond in phone call. Sheriff Garber releases those who can pay the cash bond or pay a percentage to a commercial a bail bond company. 
  • Commissioner Frederick sets these initial secured money bail amounts without communicating with the arrestee and without information about the arrestee’s finances. Impoverished arrestees are not represented by a lawyer at this point. 
  • Arrestees who cannot afford to immediately post money must wait jail for up to four days before they even see a judicial officer at their initial appearance. And even then the judicial officer does not ask about ability to pay and rejects attempts by arrestees to explain they are not able to pay. 
  • After that initial hearing, filing a motion before a judge is the only opportunity for a lower bond or a non-financial alternative condition of release. Arrestees often remain in jail for a week or longer before a judge hears a money-bail reduction motion. 

“People who cannot afford to pay pre-set amounts of money, untethered to their actual financial resources, often spend months in jail awaiting disposition of their cases,” the lawsuit states. “They are all presumed innocent.”

 A copy of the filings are available here:

Class Action Complaint

Exhibit A to Class Action Complaint

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