June 30, 2017

Lawsuit Targets Orleans Magistrate Judge Cantrell’s Unjust Bond Practice

A federal class action lawsuit alleges Orleans Magistrate Judge Harry E. Cantrell has consistently violated the constitutional rights of impoverished pre-trial arrestees by setting high bail amounts without any consideration of the person’s ability to pay or alternative no-cost conditions of release.

 Cantrell “regularly sets a $2,500 minimum secured money bond irrespective of the particular facts in the case before him, and without regard to the circumstances surrounding the arrestee appearing before him,” the lawsuit states. “He routinely refuses to entertain arguments for a lower financial condition of release and informs regularly appearing defense lawyers not to even make them.”

On June 19, 2017, Mr. Adrian Caliste, came before Judge Cantrell on allegations of committing nonviolent, misdemeanor crimes and traffic violations. Beyond asking if Mr. Caliste could afford a lawyer, which he could not, Judge Cantrell made no further attempt to learn anything about the plaintiff’s finances, including if would afford an $8,000 bail. Because Mr. Caliste can neither afford his bail nor the bail bonds fee, he remains in jail until he receives his next retirement benefit, and hopes that it could help secure his release.

“Judge Cantrell not only fails to consider the particular circumstances of individual cases, but he threatens lawyers with contempt for seeking lower bonds for their clients or even raising the subject of alternative conditions for release. It’s locking up people for being poor, plain and simple,” said Katie Schwartzmann, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center, which is representing Mr. Caliste.

The suit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, also raises concern with Cantrell’s repeated insistence on using commercial bond companies over cash payments during bond proceedings. A cash payment would be refunded at the conclusion of the defendant’s case. A commercial bail company, however, requires a non-reimbursable fee, a portion of which goes to the court’s General Fund – revenue Cantrell and other judges’ control. 

“There is a clear conflict of interest and a violation of due process,” said Eric Foley, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center office in New Orleans. “First, he and other judges manage a court budget, which depends on bail bond fees. Second, he determines release conditions for arrestees – conditions that determine whether the court has money to spend. In short, he’s helping balance the court budget on the backs of those least able to afford it and most likely to fall further into debt because they are kept locked in jail.”

Cantrell’s regular ultimatums that arrestees must use bail bond companies has helped swell the court’s General Fund. The court receives 1.8 percent of each bail bond transaction. The court actually supports up to 25 percent of its budget this way, receiving about $1 million annually that pays salaries of court staff, travel for judicial conferences and other court administrative expenses, the suit explains.

“No human being should be kept in a jail cell just because she can’t make a payment, and no judge should have a financial incentive in the cases that the judge decades,” said Alec Karakatsanis from the Civil Rights Corps. “In New Orleans, both of these fundamental constitutional principles are routinely violated every single day.”

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Civil Rights Corps