NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Civil rights activists are challenging a Tennessee court rule that says people who have been jailed can’t get their bail bond deposit back when their case is finished until court costs and other fees are removed first.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Civil Rights Corps and Choosing Justice Initiative announced Wednesday that they had sued Davidson County — the state’s second largest county, which includes Nashville — in federal court.
The suit names Davidson County Criminal Court Clerk Howard Gentry as the defendant. He’s in charge of enforcing the disputed rule.
The plaintiffs assert that the county is violating constitutional rights by forcing people to agree to agree their cash bond will be subject to garnishment for fines, court costs and restitution.
“The policies leverage the duress of pre-trial incarceration to extract tens of thousands of dollars annually from arrested individuals and their support networks, for the sole purpose of maximizing revenue for the court system,” the 30-page lawsuit states. “These garnishment practices bear no relationship to the constitutionally acceptable purpose of money bail: reasonably assuring court appearance.”
In a response, Gentry told The Associated Press, “This office’s record speaks for itself. We are about fair and equitable justice in this office and to now be included in this lawsuit that has us appearing to not function in that matter is bothersome to me.
“I understand maybe we have to be included in order to accomplish the larger problem that they see here,” he said.
Gentry added that his office did not create the rule, noting it was in effect before he took over as clerk in 2011.
“It’s our job to follow those ordinances, that’s what we do, we do not write the rules,” he said.
The lawsuit was filed after a months-long dispute involving the Nashville Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit whose organizers say is being harmed by the rule.
The group relies on donations to bail out low-income criminal defendants who can’t afford it themselves. Once the defendant’s case is finished, the group then collects the posted bond money and returns it to the revolving fund.
The nonprofit was initially exempted from Davidson County’s garnishment rule when it first began operating in 2016, but last year, a court ordered the rule would begin applying.
“The policies will inevitably bankrupt the NCBF, which will in turn trap people in the Davidson County jails on unaffordable financial conditions of release, with no way to exercise their fundamental pretrial liberty interest,” the lawsuit reads.
The ACLU and others had sent a letter to Davidson County in September warning local judges and others that the garnishment rule was likely illegal
The civil rights groups want a federal court to stop Davidson County from enforcing the garnishment rule entirely.
“Any pretrial restraint on liberty must be individually tailored to address a specific, compelling need. Money bail set beyond the amount reasonably necessary to promote court appearance, or for an impermissible purpose, is unconstitutionally excessive,” the lawsuit says.
The cash bail system has been used in the United States since colonial days. The U.S. Constitution mentions it, alongside the better-known prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments. The Eighth Amendment allows for bail but says it can’t be excessive.
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