Briefs filed on behalf of Tallahassee woman jailed for 16 months awaiting trial argue cash bail system violates rights of those who cannot afford to be let free

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida has filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to end the system by which Leon County defendants are kept in jail before facing trial – often for months at a time -- simply for being unable to afford their bail.

In filings before the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, the ACLU of Florida is arguing that Leon County’s cash bail system violates the constitutional rights of people who are presumed to be innocent in the eyes of the law and is in violation of the requirement that pretrial detention be the carefully limited exception.

“A person is supposed to be presumed innocent until found guilty, and yet there are thousands of people held in jail cells, regularly for months at a time, simply because they cannot buy their way out,” stated ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “Pretrial detention is supposed to be the exception, used only in individual cases when the government has determined no other alternative would work. But by making bail unaffordable for the hundreds of people awaiting trial, Leon County has made pretrial detention the default.”

At any given time, there are between 200-300 pretrial detainees incarcerated at the Leon County Jail who are kept in custody simply because they cannot afford to pay the imposed money bail. Besides the cost to taxpayers to keep these people behind bars, individuals who spend even a few days in pretrial detention – let alone weeks or even months – often end up losing their jobs, their homes and their children. While people with the resources to pay high bails for similar charges are able to get out of jail, even a small bail can mean staying in jail for a person with limited finances, despite the Constitution’s requirement that criminal defendants not be treated differently based on ability to pay.

The ACLU of Florida has filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in federal court on behalf of a Tallahassee woman who was held for 16 months awaiting trial, arguing that her quarter-million-dollar bail was excessive given her $9-an-hour pre-arrest income. Although the Constitution requires that individuals not be held without trial unless the government has demonstrated that no other means would satisfy its needs, the ACLU argues in its filings that by setting excessive bails that leave many defendants unable to afford to leave jail before their trials, the County has made pretrial detention its default means of handling individuals awaiting trial.

The ACLU is also seeking the court’s approval to treat the case as a class action, so that any court ruling finding the bail system unconstitutional would apply to other pretrial defendants incarcerated at the Leon County Jail and would require the County to reform its bail system to comply with constitutional protections.

“Even though these individuals are innocent in the eyes of the law, they are kept in jail for weeks, months, or potentially even years,” added Stevenson. “We are hopeful that the court will grant the class certification so that we can ensure that no one else is incarcerated based solely on an inability to pay.”

More information about the case is available here:

The petition for writ of habeas corpus is available here:

The memorandum of law is available here:

The motion for class certification is available here: