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Little v. Frederick

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lafayette Division

March 8, 2018

EDWARD LITTLE
v.
THOMAS FREDERICK, ET AL.

          HANNA MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM RULING

          ELIZABETH ENRY FOOT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is Defendants', Judge Kristian Earles (“Judge Earles”) and Commissioner Thomas Frederick (“Commissioner Frederick”) (collectively, “Defendants”), Motion to Dismiss [Record Document 26], which seeks complete dismissal of Plaintiff's action against them.[1] The Magistrate Judge held oral argument on the motion and issued a Report and Recommendation [Record Document 58], which recommends that Plaintiff's equal protection claim be dismissed and that Plaintiff's due process claim be dismissed as to Judge Earles. The Report and Recommendation is ADOPTED IN PART and REJECTED IN PART. The Court adopts the Report and Recommendation only to the extent that it recommends that Defendants' motion be denied as to Plaintiff's due process claim against Commissioner Frederick. For the reasons announced below, this Court finds that Defendant's motion should be DENIED in its entirety.

         BACKGROUND

         In his complaint, Plaintiff alleges that the 15th Judicial District Court of Louisiana (“15th JDC”), which covers Lafayette, Vermilion, and Acadia Parishes, utilizes a bail system that fails to consider an individual's financial condition or ability to pay a bail amount. The 15th JDC utilizes a money bail schedule created by Judge Earles that considers only the crime with which the arrestee is charged. Generally, when an individual is arrested with a warrant for an offense covered in the schedule, the Sheriff will release him only if he can pay the amount of money required by the schedule. When an arrestee is arrested on a warrant for an offense not covered by the schedule, bail is set by Commissioner Frederick when he approves the warrant. Record Document 1, p. 6. When a person is arrested without a warrant for an offense not covered by the schedule, bail is set by Commissioner Frederick during a telephone call after he determines whether there is probable cause to support the arrest. Commissioner Frederick makes the bail determination without any inquiry into the arrestee's financial condition and with no consideration of alternative non-financial conditions of release.

         Plaintiff alleges that if an arrestee is not released, he appears before Commissioner Frederick for his initial appearance, which is commonly referred to as a 72-hour hearing. These hearings are conducted by video-link between the courthouse and the jail and are held on Tuesdays and Fridays. At the hearing, an arrestee will be called to stand in front of a camera and address Commissioner Frederick. Commissioner Frederick will ask the arrestee to confirm that his name, address, and date of birth are correctly listed on the arrest paperwork, advise the arrestee of the charges against him, inform the arrestee of his conditions of release, and appoint an attorney if the arrestee cannot afford one. According to the complaint, although state law allows Commissioner Frederick to review a prior bail determination at the 72-hour hearing, it is his policy and practice to refuse to address conditions of release at the hearing. Instead, when arrestees attempt to explain that they cannot afford their secured financial conditions of release, they are told to “read the sheet, ” “take it up with your lawyer, ” or are simply ignored altogether. Record Document 1, p. 9. If an arrestee wishes to modify his conditions of release, he must file a motion seeking bail reduction. This motion will be heard either by the assigned district judge if the arrestee has been formally charged by the district attorney, or by the judge on duty if the arrestee has not been formally charged. Id. at 9-10. In either case, having the motion heard by the court “can typically take a week or more.” Id. at 10. During that waiting period, the arrestee remains confined.

         During oral argument, the Policy of the Fifteenth Judicial District Court Regarding Bail Bonds (“15th JDC Policy”) [Record Document 56-1] was introduced as an exhibit and the parties agreed that the policy could be considered in ruling on the motions to dismiss. Record Document 57, pp. 14-15. Defendants represented that the policy was not new, but had previously been the policy of the 15th JDC; it was simply put into writing. Id. at 14. Plaintiff's position was that the 15th JDC Policy does nothing to resolve the constitutional claims because the policy document reflects the same concerns alleged in his Complaint, at least with regard to setting of bail for persons arrested for felonies.

         The 15th JDC Policy states that, with few exceptions, all arrestees charged with a misdemeanor will be released on a summons without posting bond if charged with a traffic offense or one of the other thirty-eight listed misdemeanors. For the misdemeanors not listed, bond is set in the same manner as for felony arrests. The policy further provides that felony bonds are “set initially based on facts set forth in the probable cause for arrest affidavit, including [the] arrestee's age, local vs no local address, circumstances of the offense and the information on an arrestee's rap sheet including prior warrants for failure to appear.” Record Document 56-1, p. 2. Bonds are set two to three times each day via phone or email. If the arrestee does not bond out and is charged with a non-violent offense, he may qualify for the Sheriff Offender Tracking Program (“STOP”). If an arrestee is released by court authority through STOP, his release is conditioned on satisfactory participation in the program. A felony arrestee may also be released on a signature bond (personal surety). If an arrestee is not released through one of these methods, he “will be provided an individualized bail determination within twenty-four (24) hours of arrest, if practical, but in no event later than the next available seventy-two (72) hour hearing after arrest.”[2] After the 72-hour hearing, an arrestee's counsel “may put them on a weekly bond reduction duty docket” where counsel for the arrestee and the State will attempt to reach an agreement on a reduced bond amount. If no agreement is reached, “the arrestee may be placed on a bond reduction docket with the judge assigned to their case for the presentation of evidence and argument.” Id. at 3.

         Plaintiff alleges that this system as implemented by the 15th JDC results in the jailing of individuals who are otherwise eligible for release for no other reason than their poverty. Accordingly, Plaintiff filed this suit seeking: (1) “[a]n order and judgment preliminarily and permanently enjoining the Defendants from using money bail to detain any person without procedures that ensure an inquiry into and findings concerning the person's ability to pay any monetary amount set and without an inquiry into and findings concerning non-financial alternative conditions of release”; (2) a “declaratory judgment that the Defendants violate Plaintiff's constitutional rights by setting secured financial conditions of release without inquiring into or making findings as to whether arrestees can pay the amounts set, and without considering non-financial alternative conditions of release”; and (3) an order granting attorneys' fees and costs pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1988. Record Document 1, pp. 15-16.

         As noted in the Report and Recommendation, Defendants style their motion as a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but the motion itself does not explain its grounds, and the memorandum in support contains arguments attacking the merits of Plaintiff's claims. Specifically, Defendants argue that there is no absolute right to bail and no constitutional right to speedy bail. Defendants further claim that bond schedules are not inherently unconstitutional. Accordingly, this Court agrees with the Report and Recommendation that Defendants' motion is more appropriately considered as one under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

         STANDARD

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss brought under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The court must accept as true all of the factual allegations in the complaint in determining whether plaintiff has stated a plausible claim. See Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litigation, 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007). However, a court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 2944, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986).

         LAW & ANALYSIS

         In order to successfully state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must: “(1) allege a violation of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States and (2) demonstrate that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 638 (5th Cir. 2013) (quoting James v. Tex. Collin Cty., 535 F.3d 365, 373 (5th Cir. 2008)). Here, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants infringe his fundamental right to pretrial liberty in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection clauses by keeping him in jail because he ...


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