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ACLU of Florida files class action lawsuit challenging unaffordable bail

The petition filed Monday on behalf of 11 people being held in Manatee and Sarasota jails seeks appeals court action on bail amounts that the lawsuit says violates their due process rights.
The ACLU of Florida on Monday filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida and sheriffs in Manatee and Sarasota counties on behalf of people being held in county jails in lieu of bail amounts they can't afford. That's a violation of their due process rights, the lawsuit says.
The ACLU of Florida on Monday filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida and sheriffs in Manatee and Sarasota counties on behalf of people being held in county jails in lieu of bail amounts they can't afford. That's a violation of their due process rights, the lawsuit says. [ Photo illustration by ASHLEY DYE and MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 15
Updated Nov. 15

The ACLU of Florida has filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Florida and sheriffs in Sarasota and Manatee counties, claiming that people are being held in county jails on unaffordable bail amounts in violation of their due process rights.

The petition filed Monday in the Second District Court of Appeal states that the 11 people listed as petitioners are being held in the Manatee and Sarasota jails not because a judge ordered them to be held pending trial — a process called pretrial detention — but because they can’t afford to pay the bail amount set for them. The suit claims in each case, the state failed to clearly show that no alternative conditions of release were workable.

That violates their rights under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment and is a “systemic problem,” the 51-page petition states.

“Many others are detained or will be detained in a similar fashion,” the petition states. “The problem deserves a systematic solution.”

The petition asks the appeals court to certify the Manatee and Sarasota classes and to permit the respective class representatives and the ACLU Foundation of Florida to represent them. According to the petition, the proposed Manatee class includes roughly 75 people at any given time, and the Sarasota class includes about 40 to 50 people at any given time.

The petition seeks an order requiring the respondents to justify the pretrial detention of each petitioner and class member through unaffordable bail. And it asks the appeals court to declare that unaffordable bail constitutes pretrial detention, and that the Fourteenth Amendment requires the lower court to find that prosecutors establish “by clear and convincing proof” the need for such a bail amount.

For the 11 petitioners and other class members whose motion to modify bail was heard before the appeals court issues a final order, the suit seeks an order directing the lower court to release them on nonmonetary bail conditions, an affordable bail amount or both.

For class members whose bail motions are heard after a final order, the ACLU asks the appeals court to order the sheriffs to release them.

A spokesperson for Sarasota Sheriff Kurt Hoffman said petitions like the one filed Monday are handled by the Attorney General’s Office, and that bail procedures and amounts are set by circuit judges, not sheriffs. A spokesperson for Manatee Sheriff Rick Wells said he will not be commenting because “no civil legal action has been taken involving” him.

A spokesperson for Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The petition is the latest salvo against a cash bail system that has been a frequent target of social justice reformers and legal scholars, who say the system criminalizes poverty, bloats jail populations and disproportionately affects people of color.

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Related: A Pinellas protester was in jail for months. A fight against cash bail got him out.

After their respective arrests, the Public Defender of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit filed motions on behalf of each defendant, stating the bail amounts were unaffordable and resulted in de facto pretrial detention, according to the petition. Lower court judges heard each defendant’s motion, including testimony about their financial resources and inability to afford the bail that had been set.

Prosecutors argued that the bail amounts were reasonable “in light of the accused persons’ past criminal history and nature of the current charge(s),” the petition states. In each case, judges kept in place or imposed an unaffordable monetary bail, according to the lawsuit. The bail amounts ranged from $500 to $250,000.

“Each Petitioner has no adequate remedy at law for the denial of the fundamental constitutional right to liberty,” the suit states. “Absent intervention by this Court, they will continue to be detained in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”

After one of the defendants, George Whitfield, was arrested on charges of drug possession and paraphernalia, a Sarasota judge set bail at $2,000 “even after it was made aware that Mr. Whitfield cannot afford to pay it, is not a danger to his community nor a flight risk, and was employed at the time,” according to an ACLU of Florida news release. In jail since Aug. 4, Whitfield has since lost his job.

Whitfield is one of thousands of people who face “an impossible situation on a daily basis in Florida,” Jerry Edwards, staff attorney for the ACLU of Florida, said in the release.

“People who are unable to pay these unaffordable bail amounts face the loss of their jobs, separation from their families, and are forced to sit in jail for days, months, or possibly years as their case moves through the system regardless of their guilt or innocence,” Edwards said.

That also adds up to higher costs for taxpayers who foot the bill for people to stay in jail, the ACLU said.