Appeals court tells judge to try again in Calhoun bail case

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy, who presides over cases in Rome. (Photo by Alison Church/The Fulton Daily Report)

Credit: Alison Church/The Fulton Daily Report

Credit: Alison Church/The Fulton Daily Report

U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy, who presides over cases in Rome. (Photo by Alison Church/The Fulton Daily Report)

The federal appeals court in Atlanta has thrown out an injunction against the city of Calhoun in a closely watched case that could determine how long misdemeanor offenders must remain jailed when they cannot afford bail.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, while not ruling on the merits of the case, returned the matter to U.S. District Judge Harold Murphy in Rome. Murphy's injunction, issued early last year, ordered the city to put in place post-arrest procedures "that comply with the Constitution."

Murphy also said that “keeping individuals in jail solely because they cannot pay for their release, whether via fines, fees or a cash bond, is impermissible.” He ordered the city to stop detaining arrestees for any amount of time if they are too poor to post bond.

The 11th Circuit told Murphy that his injunction didn't give enough guidance to the city on how it must comply with the minimal standards required by the Constitution. Murphy should have issued a more specific "operative command" that could be enforced and reviewed, the court said.

“We do not believe that, as written, the injunction can stand,” said the unanimous three-judge panel’s ruling issued Thursday.

Lawyer Sarah Geraghty (Photo courtesy of the Southern Center for Human Rights)

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The lawsuit was filed by Maurice Walker, who was arrested in 2015 for being a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol. He was detained for six days because he could not post a $160 bond. The city has used a schedule that sets bail based solely on the crime being charged, not the offender's ability to pay.

After Walker filed suit, the city changed its practice to give detainees a bond hearing within 48 hours after their arrest. Since Murphy issued his injunction, people charged in Calhoun with misdemeanors have been released on their own recognizance.

The northwest Georgia city’s bail practices have attracted national attention. The U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division and the American Bar Association filed legal briefs in support of Walker’s position. Conversely, the Georgia Sheriffs Association, the American Bail Coalition and the Georgia Association of Professional Bondsmen filed motions in support of Calhoun’s practices.

“We knew Judge Murphy’s order would not stand either on the merits or as a matter of procedure,” said Jeff Clayton, executive director of the American Bail Coalition. “We will continue to work with our partners … to finally put an end to these unmeritorious lawsuits.”

One of Walker’s lawyers, Sarah Geraghty, said the 11th Circuit’s decision cannot be characterized as a major victory for the bail industry.

“The court offered no opinion on the merits of the constitutional claim,” she said. “The case will go back to the district court where (Murphy) will have the opportunity to consider how to fine-tune his injunction.”

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