Across the street from the Hall of Justice, bail bond businesses line a two-block stretch of Bryant Street. (Joel Angel Juárez/Special to S.F. Examiner)

U.S. judge eliminates bail schedule for pre-trial arrestees in SF

A federal judge in Oakland on Monday struck down the use of money bail for people who are arrested in San Francisco on suspicion of crimes but haven’t yet been arraigned.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said a bail schedule set by San Francisco Superior Court “bears no relation to the government’s interests in enhancing public safety and ensuring court appearance” and “significantly denies plaintiffs their fundamental right to liberty.”

“It merely provides a ‘Get Out of Jail’ card for anyone with sufficient means to afford it,” the judge wrote.

She ruled in a civil rights lawsuit filed in 2015 by two women who were arrested on charges of grand theft and assault, held in jail for one or two days because they couldn’t pay bail and then released after the district attorney decided not to file charges. One of them lost her job.

Former detainees Riana Buffin and Crystal Patterson argued money bail was unfair because wealthy arrestees could pay their way out of jail.

Gonzalez Rogers said in a 41-page decision that the plaintiffs’ suggested alternative of an individualized risk assessment would be “at least as effective and less restrictive.”

Although the decision applies only to pre-arraignment detainees in San Francisco, the women’s lawyer, Phil Trefelyan of Equal Justice Under Law, said the ruling could serve as a precedent in other cases.

“We’re very pleased at the thoughtfulness with which the judge reached the right decision,” Trefelyan said.

The bail system was defended by the California Bail Agents Association, which stepped in to the case after San Francisco Sheriff Vicky Hennessy and City Attorney Dennis Herrera declined to defend it.

The association’s attorney, Harmeet Dhillon, said the group is evaluating whether to file an appeal.

She said, “We are disappointed and believe the ruling is inconsistent with existing case law.”

Gonzalez Rogers said she will issue an injunction barring the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department from using the bail schedule. She instructed both sides to file proposed wording within five days and will hold a hearing on the language of the injunction on March 21.

The federal lawsuit is one of several efforts to reform the money bail system in California.

Last year, the state Legislature enacted and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law replacing money bail with a risk assessment system. But a referendum sponsored by bail industry groups has put the new law on hold until the November 2020 election. Until then, an existing law requiring superior courts to set bail schedules remains in effect.

In the state court system, the California Supreme Court is currently reviewing a Court of Appeal decision that required judges to consider a criminal defendant’s financial situation and non-monetary alternatives when considering release on bail. The challenge in that case was filed by San Francisco robbery defendant Kenneth Humphrey.

In San Francisco, pre-arraignment detainees can now apply for reduced bail or release on their own recognizance. But Gonzalez Rogers said evidence shows that people who can post bail gain release more quickly and sometimes are accused of more serious crimes than those who aren’t released.

Dhillon said by eliminating money bail, “The ruling eliminates one of several choices that arrestees have. We view this as liberty-diminishing rather than liberty-enhancing.

“We hope that ultimately the Supreme Court will take up the issue,” she said.

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