The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is suing four Lancaster County district judges on behalf of seven people incarcerated at Lancaster County Prison, claiming the judges inappropriately set excessive bail amounts resulting in “unnecessary and unconstitutional pretrial incarceration.”
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, names Judges Brian Chudzik, Edward Tobin, Miles Bixler and Andrew LeFever as defendants, along with prison Warden Cheryl Steberger.
Nyssa Taylor, the ACLU’s criminal justice strategic litigation and policy counsel, said Tuesday that the issue of excessive pretrial bail is not unique to Lancaster County, but that it is among counties the ACLU identified as problematic based on researching bail amounts set from 2016-17.
“The data informed our decision-making, but what really was the impetus for the complaint was the detail that I gathered, and my colleagues gathered, from the interviews with the incarcerated people,” Taylor told LNP | LancasterOnline.
Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth, who serves as spokesperson for the county court, said he had not read the suit but declined comment because it involved litigation. The suit, he said, would be handled by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
A spokesperson for that office also declined comment because it is in litigation. The warden also declined comment.
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to order the prison to stop taking people on cash bail unless the district judges give them an opportunity to be heard. The suit also seeks to have district judges give their findings in support of the bail they set.
And the suit asks for a judge to order Lancaster County to assign lawyers to indigent individuals at initial court appearances and to declare that the judges named are violating the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection and due process.
According to the suit and the ACLU, the four judges routinely set cash bail at amounts people can’t afford without considering other factors.
Judges setting bail can consider 10 criteria under state law. Among them: the crime charged, community ties, character and mental condition and whether a person has appeared at previous required proceedings.
The plaintiffs are identified by initials, not full name. All were still being held as of Monday, Taylor said.
One man was ordered held on $5,000 cash bail for charges of retail theft for failing to pay a $58 bar tab and public drunkenness, according to the suit. The man told LeFever he was in Lancaster to go to a rehabilitation facility for drinking. Lefever told him he was setting the bail at $5,000 because he was from Virginia, the suit said.
Taylor said ACLU staff spoke to many other people in addition to the seven listed plaintiffs. Some of them could not be plaintiffs because they were subsequently released.
One person Taylor spoke with had spent two weeks in jail because he could not afford to pay but was released after his charges were dropped.
“There is a reason why the presumption of innocence is really important,” Taylor said, noting the Constitution guarantees the right to bail.
According to the suit, “the vast majority of preliminary arraignments last only minutes,” often by video from the prison and the district judges “ask arrested people virtually nothing about their financial condition, individual circumstances, or anything else. They give arrested people no meaningful opportunity to present information that is critical to the bail decision.”
Lancaster Bail Fund reacts
The ACLU suit echoes concerns raised by Michelle Batt, president of the Lancaster Bail Fund. The organization has been critical of cash bail and pretrial detention for non-violent crimes.
Batt said she was still looking over the suit, but was hopeful it would bring attention to the issues.
“While we can’t speak to the specific factual allegations made against the named MDJs, we do know that every day in this county people are sent to jail following bail hearings in which they were not represented by an attorney. This is unconstitutional,” she said in an email. “We know even so-called low cash bail amounts can be unconstitutionally excessive. And we know greater transparency is needed to ensure compliance with the law. The relief requested by the ACLU in this suit mirrors some of the requests we have already made to our county leaders. It is our hope this suit inspires action.”