Bond companies sue county judges, sheriff over new bail rules
Three Houston bail bond companies sued Harris County’s misdemeanor judges and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in state district court on Thursday, hoping to block the implementation of the judges’ proposed revisions to local bail rules, which the plaintiffs say violate state law.
The judges’ proposal — a key step in a lengthy legal fight over the pre-trial detention of poor, low-level offenders — automatically would qualify 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors for release on no-cash bonds, county officials have estimated. Those arrested for bail violations, repeat drunken driving and family violence would be the only exceptions. Defendants would need to appear before a magistrate or judge within 48 hours, at which time they also could qualify for no-cash bonds.
This proposal, the bail bond companies argue, violates state law because it would guarantee many defendants a specific type of bail without first providing them individual hearings before a magistrate, and because it would require the sheriff to reject some bonds that otherwise would be valid under state law, among other reasons.
If a judge fails to block the implementation of the new rules, the suit states, it would “deprive plaintiffs of their liberty and property interest under the Texas Constitution in earning a living writing bail bonds.”
FOR SUBSCRIBERS: U.S. Supreme Court hits county on bail bond issue, only on HoustonChronicle.com
“In order to get a personal bond in Texas, a judge has to grant that,” said Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition. “And this policy would make it automatic in certain instances.”
A new slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges announced the revised bail rules shortly after taking office last month, and chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal signalled she would support the proposal at a Feb. 1 hearing in the long-running bail reform lawsuit that now is expected to be settled.
The landmark litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they could not afford bail on low-level offenses.
In 2017, Rosenthal issued a preliminary injunction upending the county’s bail system, which relied on a set schedule that dictated amounts based on the crime and not on a consideration of a defendant’s ability to pay. Finding that practice unconstitutional, the judge ordered the county to start releasing low-level defendants on no-cash bonds within 24 hours of their arrest.
The county appealed that ruling, and the U.S. 5th Circuit asked Rosenthal to retool the order, so she gave officials 48 hours to release inmates instead of 24. The misdemeanor judges again appealed, but those Republican office-holders were swept out in November and replaced with Democrats, who withdrew the appeal in January shortly before announcing the proposed bail rules that the bonds companies challenged in court Thursday.