Suit: Free jailed Atlanta man too poor to pay bond

The Municipal Court of Atlanta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

The Municipal Court of Atlanta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

A 45-year-old man, was covered with his own feces when he was arrested, has been held in jail since late October without a judge ever deciding if he was able to pay a $500 bond. Randall McCrary was charged with yelling obscenities at customers at an Atlanta gas station, according to a suit filed Monday.

Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, wrote in a petition filed in Fulton County Superior Court that McCrary was in jail only because he was poor and not because he posed a danger to others. The petition asks the Superior Court to order McCrary released.

The case marks the latest salvo in an ongoing battle over the Atlanta Muncipal Court’s practice of requiring cash bail for low-level offenders who sometimes cannot pay and languish behind bars.

“This is yet another illustration of the two-tiered system of pre-trial justice in the City of Atlanta,” Geraghty said “We have one system for people of means and another for people who can’t afford to pay for their release. “

It also is an example of “the shabby way that we treat people with mental illness in Atlanta city court,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday.

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Not only is the pre-set bail system being challenged in Atlanta it also has been questioned in other states and is part of Gov. Nathan Deal's on-going push to reform Georgia's criminal justice system; the 2018 Legislature is expected to address the use of cash bail.

Just last week, civil rights groups sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms that was similar to one they delivered weeks earlier to her predecessor, asking that the Municipal Court abandon its use of pre-set cash bail. A spokeswoman for Bottoms said the mayor was reviewing the letter sent to her last week and would respond to it soon. Court officials could not be reached for comment Monday as city government was closed because of predictions of wintry weather.

According to the suit, on Oct. 22 a police officer was dispatched to a gas station on Boulevard because of reports of a man yelling at customers. The officer wrote in his report that he arrested McCrary, who had covered himself with his own feces, after he continued to yell threats and obscenities. McCrary was taken first to Grady Memorial Hospital and then to the Atlanta Detention Center on a charge of disorderly conduct.

A Municipal Court judge set bond for McCrary — who lived with his elderly mother and was receiving Supplemental Security Income because of a mental disability — after he was released from the hospital and transferred to jail. “There was no judicial inquiry into his ability to pay $500, and no judicial finding made that such a sum was necessary to reasonably guarantee McCrary’s appearance in court. No judicial officer inquired into his ability to pay bond,” the petition said.

Another municipal court judge signed an order on Dec. 15 to send McCrary’s case to Fulton County State Court; the charge was converted to misdemeanor “fighting words/use of profanity.”

He was transported to the Fulton County Jail six days later.

“McCrary has long since been stabilized on his mental health medications,” the petition said.

“If he could pay, he would be out of there (jail),” Geraghty said.

In Atlanta, there are pre-set bonds for every offense that falls under the purview of the Municipal Court. Essentially, the bonds equal the fines that would be imposed for a guilty plea or verdict. The fines are relatively low — in some cases as little as $10, $60 or $132 — but poor defendants are often unable to pay.

Last November, the Southern Center filed petition for Sean Ramsey that was similar's to McCrary's. Ramsey was arrested for standing beside a busy street with a handmade cardboard sign on which he had written "homeless, please help. His bond was set at $200, which he could not pay, so he was held in jail 2 1/2 months until his situation was made public.

Another lawsuit has been brought against a city north of metro Atlanta. A case pending in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says the city of Calhoun's use of pre-set bail violates the constitutional rights of poor defendants.

Elsewhere, Houston has also been sued for using pre-set bail while cities like Chicago, Nashville, Birmingham and New Orleans have abandoned the practice of locking up low-level offenders when they cannot post bond for crimes that otherwise would include no jail time for punishment.