RALEIGH — A group of North Carolina jail inmates filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging a county's cash bail requirements, saying the system unfairly jails the poor while letting people with money go home.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of three Alamance County jail inmates who say they can't afford cash bail amounts of more than $1,000. Two of the inmates are only facing misdemeanor charges. The ACLU is seeking class-action status.
ACLU lawyers argue the county violates the inmates' constitutional rights because they are presumed innocent while awaiting trial, yet remain confined because they can't afford bail.
"A person's freedom should never depend on how much money they have," ACLU attorney Leah Kang said in a news release. "But right now in Alamance County, people who are presumed innocent are sitting in jail for one simple reason: because they do not have enough money to pay the bail that would allow them to go home to their jobs and families while they wait for their day in court."
Two judges and several magistrates named as defendants declined comment through staff members.
Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, also a defendant, said in an email the lawsuit shouldn't target him because his job is enforcing the law, not setting bonds.
"I would like to say that someone does not understand the Office of Sheriff. A Sheriff does not have the authority to set bond on anything," he said.
The lawsuit cited research by the University of North Carolina School of Government that found Alamance County's judicial system required secured bond in approximately 85% of misdemeanor cases in 2018, giving it one of the highest rates in the state.
As of early November, more than three-quarters of the 350 jail inmates were awaiting trial, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit argues that the county's bail system violates due process and equal protection constitutional rights because inmates' freedom is unfairly tied to their monetary means. It also argues that the system violates inmates' rights to counsel because poor defendants typically lack attorneys to represent them while bail is being set.
The lawsuit seeks an overhaul of the county's bail procedures.
Pretrial confinement can jeopardize people's employment, child care and housing, among other issues, according to the lawsuit.
Among the plaintiffs is 36-year-old Antonio Harrell, who's jailed on misdemeanor larceny and trespassing charges. The lawsuit says he lives in a group home and gets by on proceeds from his mother's social security check, as well as a job busing tables at a barbecue restaurant.
His lawyers say he can't afford to pay a $1,500 secured bail to be released from jail. His first appearance in court is Dec. 6, several weeks after his Nov. 9 arrest.
"He is extremely worried that if he remains in jail because he cannot make the payment required for his release, he could lose his room at the group home, as well as his job and possibly his social security check," the lawsuit says.