August 7, 2018

Federal Court Rules Orleans Parish Magistrate Judge Violating Constitutional Rights During Bond Proceedings

Louisiana – A Judge has ruled that Orleans Parish Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell is violating the constitutional rights of arrestees appearing before him for initial bond hearings.

A federal lawsuit, Caliste v. Cantrell, was filed against Judge Harry Cantrell in June 2017 by the MacArthur Justice Center and the Civil Rights Corps, challenging his practice of setting high bail amounts without any consideration of the person’s ability to pay or alternative, no-cost conditions of release.

In its ruling, the Federal court declared that these practices violate Due Process. Magistrate Cantrell will now have to change his practices to meet the minimum Constitutional standards outlined by the Federal Court.

“In New Orleans we have people in jail for no reason other than that they are poor,” said Katie Schwartzmann of the MacArthur Justice Center. “When people are arrested they are presumed innocent. They should not be locked up awaiting trial unless there is a very compelling public safety reason to hold them in jail. People should be released back into our community so that they can maintain their jobs, housing, and care for their kids. Jailing people just because they are poor makes our city less safe; it destroys families and the fabric of our community. The ruling today means that people who are arrested in Orleans Parish should get a full and fair hearing on their pretrial release.”

The Federal Court also targeted the conflict of interest created by a court funding its daily operations from the bond amounts it imposes on arrestees. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court (OPCDC) derives “roughly 25%” of its Judicial Expense Fund from fees on commercial sureties and that the Magistrate participated in managing these funds. The ruling stated that “as long as Judge Cantrell participates in the control of bond fee revenue and the OPCDC relies on it as a substantial source of funding, Judge Cantrell’s determination of Plaintiffs’ ability to pay bail and the amount of that bail is in violation of due process.”

“The judges in Orleans Parish make money off of people who are arrested,” said Eric Foley, an attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center. “The higher the bond, the more money goes into the court coffers. It offends the highest value of justice system: the principle of a neutral fact finder. As the court noted in its ruling, though, this biased system wasn’t created by the judges. Rather, it’s a symptom of the state legislature’s decades-long abandonment of the duty to adequately fund the judiciary. Most people are unaware that the state contributes very little money to the daily operation of the state courts. The judges have long been left on their own to keep the lights on. And the result is the unconstitutional, user-funded system we see today.”