Constitutional Law

2 federal judges find constitutional problem with debtors prisons and bail in New Orleans

  • Print

Two federal judges have ruled against the constitutionality of court practices in New Orleans that had sent criminal defendants to jail for failure to pay court-ordered fines and fees and an inability to pay bail.

In a decision Friday, U.S. District Judge Sarah Vance ruled it is unconstitutional to imprison people for failing to pay fines and fees without inquiring into their ability to play. Vance also ruled it is unconstitutional for judges to determine ability to pay when court debts help pay court budgets. Vance said the practices violated the 14th Amendment.

Vance’s declaratory judgment for the plaintiffs “marks the end of a three-year legal battle over the so-called ‘debtors prison’ lawsuit” brought by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the New Orleans Advocate reports. NPR also has coverage of the case, Cain v. City of New Orleans.

Judges in Orleans Parish had routinely issued arrest warrants for people for failure to pay fines and fees. After the suit was filed, the courts recalled thousands of arrest warrants. Some warrants for failure to pay restitution or show up in court remain in place, however.

Fees had ranged from $14 for court transcripts to $2,500 for a felony.

In a second decision on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Eldon Fallon ruled it is unconstitutional to set bail without considering whether the defendant has the ability to pay or whether they qualify for alternative terms of release. Fallon said the defendants have the right to counsel at a bail hearing. The Advocate has a story.

In addition, Fallon also said the constitutional rights of poor defendants are violated when fees on surety bonds for bail help support court operations. Fallon cited due process concerns in his decision.

The defendant was Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell of Orleans Parish, who oversees the initial setting of bail and helps manage the court funds received as a result of his bail orders. The plaintiffs had alleged he routinely set bail at a minimum of $2,500 and did not allow cash bail.

Cantrell had told the court he changed his bail procedures after the suit was filed.

The case is Caliste v. Cantrell. The plaintiffs were represented by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center in New Orleans and the Civil Rights Corps in Washington, D.C.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.