Civil rights group sues over Oklahoma bail practices

A civil rights group has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against court officials in central Oklahoma, alleging a county's bail system is unconstitutional

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A civil rights group has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against court officials in central Oklahoma, alleging a county's bail system unconstitutionally discriminates against poor and disabled people.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma filed the suit late Tuesday in federal court in Oklahoma City on behalf of six inmates currently being held in the Canadian County jail.

The lawsuit alleges that the county's bail system routinely keeps poor people in jail before a trial, not because they are a flight risk or a danger to society but only because they can't afford to pay bail. The suit also alleges that inmates aren't provided access to counsel when bail is set, that hearings are taking place in private, and that the system unconstitutionally discriminates against people with disabilities.

One plaintiff, 40-year-old Misty White, who was arrested last month for violating a protective order, began suffering withdrawal symptoms because she wasn't provided with her medications in the jail, according to the lawsuit.

When she was finally arraigned before a judge more than a week after her arrest, she was not asked whether she could afford an attorney.

“The judge did not ask whether Ms. White has a job or if she could afford to pay $4,500,” the suit states. “The judge did not provide any explanation for why her bail was set at $4,500.”

The county also has a practice of denying court-appointed attorneys to any inmate who does manage to pay bail, according to the suit.

The suit focuses on Canadian County, but such unconstitutional practices are taking place in counties across the state, said Ryan Kiesel, executive director of ACLU of Oklahoma.

“We are here this morning to put every judicial district on notice that the continued use of unconstitutional bail practices will not be tolerated," Kiesel said.

The lawsuit seeks an end to the county's bail-setting policies and asks the court to require hearings be held promptly after arrest. Those hearings should include, among other things, an individualized inquiry into a person's ability to pay bail and the presence of an attorney for those who can't afford it.

Canadian County's presiding District Court Judge Paul Hesse said the ACLU's complaint doesn't accurately describe the county's bail procedures and dismissed many of its assertions as “patently false.”

“The judges of this judicial district follow regular procedures and administrative orders that are designed to protect the rights of all arrestees and accused,” Hesse said in a statement. “A review by the federal court of the bail procedures in Canadian County is welcomed."