Federal Lawsuit Filed Challenging Hamblen County’s Wealth-Based Bail Practices
February 19, 2020 [Hamblen County, TN] – Late Sunday night, Civil Rights Corps and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) at Georgetown Law, in partnership with the law firm Baker Donelson, filed a federal class action lawsuit against Hamblen County General Sessions Judge Doug Collins, the Sheriff, and the County’s Judicial Commissioners, for imposing and enforcing unaffordable money bail on people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies in the county, in violation of their constitutional rights.
The lawsuit alleges that those who cannot afford to pay are detained indefinitely, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay are freed immediately. As a result, the lawsuit states, “the Hamblen County Jail operates at over 150 percent capacity, and some of the poorest residents of Hamblen County are kept unclothed, shackled to walls and door handles, or forced to sleep in storage closets, simply because they are unable to pay for their release.”
“As we’ve alleged, the money bail system in Hamblen County has directly led to overcrowding and inhumane conditions in its jail,” said Tara Mikkilineni, senior attorney at Civil Rights Corps.
The lawsuit states that Hamblen County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps presumptively innocent people in jail if they can’t afford bail while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, and communities. The complaint describes jail conditions that “make it difficult for detainees to mount an effective legal defense.” The lawsuit further states that “to escape prolonged detention and the outrageous conditions there, most pretrial detainees choose to plead guilty before their case has even been indicted by a grand jury” or they have received the evidence against them, and that individuals are more likely to plead guilty “even if they are innocent” to shorten their jail time.
As the suit states, of the more than 400 people locked in the Hamblen County Jail on any given day in 2019, on average approximately 50 percent were awaiting trial. As a direct consequence, the Hamblen County Jail operates at over 170-percent capacity.
The lawsuit alleges violations of the federal due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. In addition to seeking emergency relief for four named plaintiffs, the lawsuit seeks certification of a class (and relief for that class) of those who are or will be arrested in Hamblen County and detained pretrial solely because they are unable to afford money bail.
As the lawsuit states, the named Plaintiffs are four women charged with misdemeanors and non-violent drug offenses. According to the complaint, their bail amounts range from $1,500 to $75,000 and they suffer from serious medical conditions for which they are not receiving medication, separation from minor children, and loss of employment, in addition to the prolonged detention in unsanitary jail conditions.
The lawsuit alleges that Hamblen County’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary, and that Judge Collins and the judicial commissioners routinely set high money bail amounts without considering a person’s ability to pay, and people detained who cannot afford their bail amount do not have the opportunity to request a lower amount for up to 21 days from their arrest.
The complaint also states that pretrial detention based solely on wealth results in a “significant cost to taxpayers.” “As we’ve stated in our lawsuit, pretrial detention based solely on wealth as practiced in Hamblen County is significantly more expensive than effective pretrial release programs.” said Seth Wayne, senior counsel at ICAP. “We have cited research that shows that pretrial release programs can save taxpayer dollars while maintaining high public safety and court appearance rates.”
In recent years, lawsuits have successfully challenged wealth-based detention, resulting in reforms and judicial orders condemning these practices in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Texas.
For a copy of the full complaint, click here
About Civil Rights Corps (CRC):
Civil Rights Corps is a nonprofit organization working to end the criminalization of poverty through high impact, innovative, anti-racist civil rights litigation and advocacy. CRC are leaders in the national movement to end money bail by challenging routine practices that trap millions of people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration.
About the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP):
ICAP uses the power of the courts to defend American constitutional rights and values. Based at Georgetown Law Center, ICAP draws on expert litigators, savvy litigation strategy, and the constitutional scholarship of Georgetown to vindicate individuals’ rights and to protect America’s constitutional way of life. More information about ICAP can be found at law.georgetown.edu/icap.
About Baker Donelson:
Baker, Donelson is a regional firm led until his death by the late Senator Howard Baker. The firm has a strong commitment, as did Senator Baker, to public service. Matt White has been involved in significant public interest litigation involving drivers license revocations and private probation practices. George T. “ Buck” Lewis is a former President of the Tennessee Bar, former Chair of the Tennessee Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission, and former Chair of the ABA Pro Bono and Public Service Committee.