Seven months after being accused in federal court of running an unconstitutional bail system, Galveston County leaders say they’ve made reforms to ensure poor people spend less time in jail before seeing a judge and chance to go free.
Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union said Friday, however, the reforms don’t go far enough — and that a federal court still needed to intervene and place requirements on the bail system to prevent people from being unfairly treated.
“There is nothing to suggest it’s absolutely clear the allegedly wrongful events could not be reasonably expected to reoccur,” said Christopher Odell, a lawyer for the civil rights group.
United States District Court Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison in coming weeks will decide whether to dismiss the civil rights group’s lawsuit, which was filed in April, or to allow the case to move forward.
Edison on Friday heard from lawyers representing the county, its district court judges, its magistrate judges and the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, who argued the lawsuit should be dismissed for a variety of reasons, including that the county already had made changes to address the issues at the center of the lawsuit.
The ACLU accused the county of operating a bail system that unjustly harms indigent people accused of crimes. It sued the county on behalf of Aaron Booth, 36, who was arrested in April on charges of possession of a controlled substance.
The court system’s initial processing infringed on Booth’s due process civil rights, the ACLU asserts.
The county failed to appoint Booth an attorney before setting his bail and did not determine his financial ability to pay the bail, according to the lawsuit.
Booth’s initial bond was set at $20,000. He spent nearly two months in the county jail before he made bail, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to the drug charge in August, and was sentenced to 100 days in jail and ordered to pay about $1,000 in fines, according to court records.
When it filed the lawsuit, the ACLU asked for an injunction and an order for the county to promptly appoint a defense attorney and for the county to implement “the least restrictive means” of setting bail on people who have been arrested.
County lawyers said Friday the bail system had been changed in ways to address problems raised by the lawsuit.
The county has hired more employees to interview people about their financial situation and their ability to pay bail before they go before a magistrate judge, attorneys said. The county also has hired more magistrate judges and increased the number of magistrate hearings it holds each day to process arrested people more quickly, the county said.
The district attorney’s office has stopped using a written guide to recommend bail for certain offenses, attorneys said.
In August, the county published new bail guidelines that, among other things, advise magistrate judges to consider “what amount the arrestee could reasonably pay.” It also requires a second bail hearing, with a defense attorney present, if an arrested person hasn’t been released within 48 hours
The county’s district court judges in September approved changes to a plan that determines how a person is defined as indigent and how defense attorneys are assigned to cases.
In an Oct. 3 filing, attorneys for the district judges argued the new systems rendered Booth’s claims moot.
“This new system provides all that is required by the Constitution,” the attorneys wrote.
Odell, the ACLU attorney, said the changes “do not adequately address the problem” and criticized the county’s August guidelines.
“It is an author-less document that has been put forward to try to convince this court that the problems have been resolved,” he said.
In court on Friday, he pointed to depositions taken from local judges, who said under oath they were not aware of, or were not following, county’s new bail guidelines.
Without a court order, it’s possible the problems with the old system could happen again, Odell said.
County attorneys argued the judges’ depositions were taken before the new systems went into place and it didn’t matter whether the judges agreed with or followed the guidelines written by the county.
“The linchpin of plaintiff’s case is that the district courts haven’t signed off on this policy,” said Joe Nixon, the attorney representing Galveston County. “It doesn’t matter one wit whether they do or they don’t.”
The county has done all it can do to address the issues, Nixon said. He suggested the ACLU should have sued the state over its laws regarding bail, rather than pursuing action against the county.
“Every single defendant has said ‘I’m not liable under your cause of action because of a specific legal reason,’” Nixon said. “Lumping it all together is just a way to try to confuse or misguide the court.”
Edison did not make any ruling about the case on Friday. He tentatively set a date for another hearing in December, but said that it might not be needed if he chooses to dismiss the case.