ACLU sues Glynn County for jailing the poor over minor offenses

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit accusing a Glynn County judge, sheriff and public defender of violating the rights of poor defendants by locking them up without any regard for their ability to post bond.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Brunswick, is the latest attempt to address what critics call a “two-tier system” for relatively minor offenses — such as loitering, drinking in public, misdemeanor traffic crimes, and the like. Critics say defendants with money for bail can avoid jail or get out quickly, while those who are broke remain behind bars.

Pre-set bail schedules have been a topic of litigation elsewhere in Georgia. Atlanta recently adopted a new ordinance designed to abolish bail for low-level offenders in Municipal Court. And pre-set bond is the final chapter in Gov. Nathan Deal's criminal justice reform in legislation pending before the Legislature.

“People who cannot afford to pay bail or hire a private attorney face an impossible choice: plead guilty, or face loss of their families, jobs and homes as they wait for their cases to move through the system,” said Andrea Woods, an Equal Justice Works Fellowship attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project.

“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Georgia and across the country,” Woods said. “In Glynn County, the contract public defender and prosecutors alike refuse to grant people the presumption of innocence and ignore the government’s due process obligation to ensure that release upon arrest is the norm.”

Glynn County Chief Magistrate Judge Alex Atwood said he was surprised by the lawsuit. “I haven’t received any communication from the ACLU expressing any concerns as they delineated in the complaint,” Atwood said. “I pride myself on being dedicated to the Constitution. I always have and I always will. I try to respect the due process rights of everyone.”

Atwood said the bail system was in place when he was elected to office in 2017.

Glynn County Sheriff E. Neal Jump said, “I don’t have a comment on it yet,” explaining that he had not read all of the complaint.

Misdemeanor public defender Reid Zeh did not return phone calls seeking comment.

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The lawsuit contends the three officials violated indigent defendants’ their constitutional right to be free from illegal searches and seizures.

It asks that the federal court allow the complaint to apply to all poor people who come before the Magistrate Court in Glynn County and not just the two people who filed the suit. The court document said investigators found that in just three months, at least 122 people were held in jail while their misdemeanor charges were pending.

Those 122 people included Margery Freida Mock and Eric Scott Ogden, who were arrested Wednesday on a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass while trying to visit Ogden’s grandmother at a local motel.

They remained in jail Friday. Both are homeless and are being held on bonds of $1,256 that were automatically set.

Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, said there is a hearing set for Thursday in federal court in Brunswick on a request to have the two released from jail and to temporarily stop the Glynn County court from ordering anyone else held only because they cannot post bond.

Combined ShapeCaption
Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. (John Carrington / Special to the AJC)

Credit: John Carrington

Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. (John Carrington / Special to the AJC)

Credit: John Carrington

Combined ShapeCaption
Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. (John Carrington / Special to the AJC)

Credit: John Carrington

Credit: John Carrington

According to the lawsuit, defendants can be held in jail for days or even weeks before seeing a judge.

The lawsuit complains that at a first appearance in court, Atwood simply reads defendants their rights and confirms the bail amount, and occasionally asks about their ability to pay. Defendants don’t necessarily have attorneys for those hearings.

The next time they go before a judge is for a weekly hearing called “jail pleas” in State Court.

“Accused persons are informed of their right to trial by judge or jury and of their right to counsel, and are encouraged to plead guilty and proceed without counsel in order to ‘take care of things quickly,’ or ‘get back to work,’” the lawsuit states. “Arrestees typically also receive the advisement that ‘most people proceed without a lawyer,’ and that to do so ‘is just easier.’ Accordingly, many accused persons plead guilty at their arraignment — likely because this is the only way they will have an opportunity to speak to a judge.”

The sheriff is complicit, the lawsuit argues, because he automatically holds people who cannot pay to get out.

And the lawsuit says Zeh, the public defender, does little to protect his indigent clients. Zeh “does not visit indigent clients in the detention center, or file motions to reduce bail or habeas petitions on their behalf.”

Young, the ACLU of Georgia legal director, said Glynn County courts hold poor defendants “hostage” to a “pre-determined ransom.”