Landmark cases seldom come advertised as such; it just happens that way and then seems inevitable afterwards. ArchCity Defenders is part of a coalition — both legal advocates and community activists — working to reform the cash bail system in the St. Louis region. Its federal suit on behalf of four named plaintiffs, which also aspires to class action status, offers a federal district judge an opportunity to issue a landmark ruling. The judge could look at the evidence and decide that routine procedures in the St. Louis circuit court, even though technically compliant with state standards, routinely violate federal constitutional guarantees and must be overhauled.
The judge could order the circuit judges to stop handling cash bail the way they do at present and order them to proceed differently in a way that protects constitutional Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process for all defendants. The suit that ArchCity filed with co-counsel even drafted a reform to bail procedures included in the filing that the federal judge could impose upon the circuit court. That move or one like it proceeding from this suit could bust open the cash bail system in St. Louis and force the reforms that local officials have been sluggish to implement on their own. We urge the judge to rule on the side of the U.S. Constitution and not our compromised local status quo and start the dawning of a new, better day in our courts.
The judge did order the circuit court to hear the four named plaintiffs’ arguments asserting that they pose no threat to public safety or flight risk, the two reasons defendants are confined before trial, and arguing their inability to post the high bonds typically imposed in Missouri’s 22nd Circuit. We observed the hearing that Judge Thomas C. Clark II gave to David Dixon, one of the named plaintiffs. It was a very typical case of the cash bail blues – the cash bail tragedy – in St. Louis. The court accepted as fact that Dixon, who is accused of possessing a handgun as a felon, has never been convicted of any previous crime involving a gun. The court accepted that Dixon’s most recent offense of any kind dates back to 2003 and was merely possession of a controlled substance, which would not even draw criminal charges today. The judge heard Dixon’s compelling testimony that, based on his two low-income jobs, the most he could afford to post as bail was $500. Yet Clark still imposed cash bail of $30,000.
Dixon’s ArchCity counsel reminded the judge that imposing cash bail of $30,000 on a defendant who just argued convincingly that he would be unable to pay that sum was “de facto detention.” Clark appeared to be comfortable with imposing “de facto detention” on a defendant despite his constitutional guarantee of innocence before guilt is proven. That comfort with routine unconstitutional practice in the 22nd Circuit is what the federal court could – should – must – disrupt with a landmark ruling in this case.
The crux of the injustice, of course, is that ability to pay a hefty bond is an independent variable from threat to public safety or flight risk, the only reasons to detain a defendant before trial. Anyone with the same evidence of public menace or flight risk that the judge discerned in Dixon with the means to post $30,000 would be back at work and sleeping in his own bed while he awaited his trial date. Dixon was marched to jail in shackles, his working and family life totally disrupted simply because he lacks financial means. How this situation is consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee to equal protection and due process is something the federal judge would have to explain in the shameful event that this potentially landmark case brings no change.