SHREVEPORT — Two Louisiana men filed suit against six judges of the Louisiana 26th Judicial District Court and the sheriff of Bossier Parish, alleging that their due process and equal protection rights were violated.
Plaintiffs James Wheat and Danny Brinson, who are both homeless, were unable to pay bail or the $40 public defender application fee when they were arrested for panhandling on the interstate.
According to the complaint, both men had bail automatically set at $1,000 on a charge that carries only a $200 fine. Both men are indigent and cannot afford to post bail.
"Since August 2015, the sheriffs of Bossier and Webster Parishes have systematically imprisoned people not because they have been convicted of a crime, violated a condition of probation or been held in contempt of court," the complaint said. "Rather, the sheriffs are enforcing an en banc order from the judges of the 26th Judicial District Court prohibiting anyone from being released on bail if they have not paid a $40 fee to apply for representation by the 26th Judicial District’s Public Defender... This practice discriminates against the indigent, jailing our poorest citizens solely on account of their poverty. It is a blatant violation of the protections of the 14th Amendment, and it must end.’’
Defendants listed in the suit are Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington and judges Mike Craig, Jeff Thompson, Jeff Cox, E. Charles Jacobs, Mike Nerren and Parker Self.
"It is bedrock principle of our legal system that a person cannot be detained or imprisoned solely for their inability to pay a fee," the complaint said. "Such an incarceration violates the Substantive Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Constitution. Plaintiffs seek to vindicate these rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, requesting declaratory and injunctive relief. Plaintiffs also assert supplemental claims under Louisiana state law."
Officers arrested Wheat on March 6 on a misdemeanor charge of panhandling on an interstate highway. The penalties for the offense are a maximum fine of $200 or up to six months in prison.
Wheat spent a night in the city jail before being transferred to the sheriff’s office where he was notified that his bail was set at $1,000.
While in front of the judge, Wheat refused representation thinking his case would move faster if he could enter a plea.
The suit said at no time during the two-minute hearing did the judge address the bail issue.
Brinson also was arrested March 6 for the same violation. He appeared before a judge on March 8 via video and was informed of the charge. A public defender was appointed for him.
According to the suit, Brinson had yet to meet his public defender as of March 20 when the suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Shreveport. Because he is homeless and indigent, he could not afford the bail or the application fee.
Filing the class-action suit were New Orleans attorneys Eric Foley and Katie Schwartmann.
In the suit, the plaintiffs want the court to declare that the public defender application fee violates the Substantive Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
They want the court to keep Whittington from enforcing the unconstitutional en banc order of the defendant judges and declare the bail schedule to be unconstitutional. They also want Whittington to release the plaintiffs from custody and all other similarly situated class members. They also want to be awarded reasonable attorneys' fees and costs.