Like many jurisdictions across the nation, Los Angeles County has a big problem with its bail system. Scores of defendants are being forced to wait far too long to make their case that they should have their bails lowered or be released through alternative means. Unfortunately, rather than looking for serious ways to remedy the situation, politics has reared its ugly head once again. The culprit this time is the Civil Rights Corps, which is attempting to get the results they want through a good old-fashioned lawsuit. The organization filed the class action case of Urquidi, et al v. Los Angeles County, et al, in Los Angeles Superior Court on November 14, 2022.
The problem is, the very premise of their suit has already been determined to be without merit after rulings in numerous court cases stretching from California to Alabama the past nearly eight years. It all began with Varden v. City of Clanton, Alabama, filed in 2015 by Equal Justice Under Law, a predecessor of the Civil Rights Corps.
The essence of the various lawsuits was quite simple: if a person does not make bail it is due to their being impoverished. Based on this premise, plaintiffs have claimed that there must be a right to an affordable bail, i.e., a person must always be released from custody on a bail they can actually post and never held in jail pending trial.
The nearly identical rulings of the long line of federal and state copycat cases — all brought by the Civil Rights Corps — rejected the claims on equally basic legal theory. Most recently in Hester v. Gentry, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit instead held that bail does not create discrimination against the indigent since these individuals have the ability to go to court and argue for alternatives to bail.
The California Supreme Court has also weighed-in on the Civil Rights Corps’ theory. In the case of In re: Humphrey, it held that judges could impose bails that were beyond a defendants’ means, provided the court made specific findings as to the need for it and if there were a lack of alternatives.
In late November, a mere seven days after the Urquidi lawsuit was filed, the California Court of Appeals for the First District ruled on the case of In re: Kowalczyk, which also rejected the principle of a right to an affordable bail. In its decision, it stated that the California Constitution has never “been construed as imposing an absolute requirement that bail be affordable.” The Kowalcyzk court also cited two decisions from the state’s Supreme Court dating back to 1879 that clearly rejected the right to a bail that must be set in an “affordable amount.”
Faced with a legal premise that cannot be won on the merits, no matter how many times they try, the Civil Rights Corps has resorted to the tactic of suing their own allies. This is precisely what they are attempting to do by suing the Police Chief of the City of Los Angeles who will report to the newly-elected mayor, Karen Bass. The organization clearly is counting on Bass’ tacit support in its effort.
Bass has been an outspoken critic of bail, and as member of Congress in 2019, said, “The wealthy and the poor receive radically different treatment solely based upon their ability to post bail, which often is set at arbitrary levels well above the means of many people to pay despite the low risk they may actually post to society. I believe this is patently unfair and is un-American.”
As unethical as it is clever, the Civil Rights Corps knows that Bass will not bring in the necessary parties to legitimately fight the suit against the city she represents. Because she wants them to prevail, she will undoubtedly settle the case quickly and bind Los Angeles to terms that are not consistent with established law.
In the Urquidi case, the Civil Rights Corps has used the same tactic by suing the office of the Sheriff of Los Angeles County. Robert Luna, who is about to be sworn-in as the new Sheriff, is an avowed criminal justice reformer and will likely align himself with the county’s Board of Supervisors long held position to “end cash bail.” With this case, however, everything will change if the Sheriff, on behalf of Los Angeles County and the Board of Supervisors, settles with the Civil Rights Corps.
It should be pointed out that the actual state judges who implement statutes directly, set bails that defendants cannot afford, and establish the bail schedule (which is also alleged to be unconstitutional), are not named as defendants in the Urquidi case. Similarly, the State Attorney General has not been offered an opportunity to defend the constitutionality of California state statute, which appears in question.
It is a blatant abuse of the system to sue allies and friends who don’t have any actual authority or responsibility for the systems they purportedly oversee. The Civil Rights Corps and their cronies are playing a dangerous political game, knowing that they cannot win with their flawed and discredited legal theories. Instead, they have resorted to dirty tactics that threaten to make a mockery of the trust we place in our public officials to uphold the law and the California Constitution.