Sean Ramsey was arrested on Sept. 19 near the state Capitol. His crime? Holding up a handwritten cardboard sign that read, “homeless, please help.”
Unable to post the required $200 bond, he sat in jail until Wednesday, never once appearing before a judge. Ramsey was released only after the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a petition challenging his 2 ½ month detention.
The suit was brought against Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson because Ramsey is in his custody, but its real focus is the Atlanta Municipal Court which the center argues routinely throws poor people in jail for low-level offenses.
“This is a case that sounds like it came out of another country, one not governed by the rule of law,” Sarah Geraghty, managing attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And it is but one example of the dysfunction and fundamental unfairness of Atlanta’s pretrial system.”
Sean Ramsey had not been before a judge nor had he spoken to an attorney when Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy sent his case to Fulton County State Court — and him to the Fulton County Jail — on Sept. 20. Fulton County taxpayers have been paying $77.20 a day to keep him behind bars on the ordinance violation, which bans pedestrians from soliciting rides or business.
The Atlanta court has a pre-set bail schedule, like many municipal courts nationwide. But the use of such schedules has led to lawsuits if the fines are imposed regardless of a defendant’s ability to pay.
“Too many courts use money bail to extract fines and surcharges up front, before a person’s case is even heard,” Geraghty said. “But that’s not the way the pre-trial system release is supposed to work.”
In a statement on Thursday, the Sheriff’s Office said “jail staff recognized that Mr. Ramsey had not been to court and notified the Solicitor’s Office.” The statement said there had been a problem with the computer system that links the courts, prosecutors and the jail. Geraghty said Ramsey was released only after she gave the Solicitor’s office a copy of the petition.
Once the charges against Ramsey were dismissed, Gereghaty withdrew the petition.
But Ramsey’s plight is not unique. The problem with low-level offenders, who are poor, staying in jail because they don’t have means to pay a bond continues even as some courts have moved to correct the problem.
In Chicago for example, the chief judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill., wrote in an order in July that bail could be set to ensure defendants appeared in court only after a defendant is questioned about the ability to pay.
“The tide is turning as jurisdiction after jurisdiction that changes their pretrial system to make sure that people without money are treated equally to people who do,” Geraghty said.
But not everywhere. And not in Georgia.
A case in the City of Calhoun, in the northwest part of the state, has attracted national attention.
Last week, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and 28 current and former prosecutors from 16 states filed a brief supporting Maurice Walker, who was arrested for walking drunkenly down a remote stretch of highway. With a $160 bond he could not pay, Walker sat in the Gordon County Jail for six nights. He was released the day after the Southern Center sued Calhoun on his behalf.
Since then, a federal judge has ruled against Calhoun. The northwest Georgia town appealed.
And in early November, the Southern Center and the Civil Rights Corps wrote Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, warning that the Municipal Court’s practices were putting the city in a precarious legal position.
The two groups noted in their letter that Harris County Texas — home to Houston — had so far spent $5 million on legal fees defending it’s system, which is identical to Atlanta’s, the letter said.
The municipal court in any community is the one most likely to touches citizens’ lives. The judges adjudicate city ordinance violations such as public intoxication and jaywalking as well as traffic charges such as making an illegal turn or parking where prohibited.
It was just steps away from Atlanta’s Municipal Court where Ramsey’s current troubles began. The 41-year-old was standing with his sign outside the court, at the intersection of Central Avenue and Memorial Drive, when he was spotted by a police officer, according to the incident report.
He was arrested on a charge of “pedestrian soliciting in roadway.”
The next morning, Ramsey was one of 20 men and eight women on Judge Gundy’s calendar.
The petition said the court ordered that Ramsey could be released if he paid $200.
The habeas corpus petition said Atlanta Municipal Court violated Ramsey’s constitutional rights when he was sent to jail — without appearing before a judge — “solely due to his inability to pay money.”
“While our Administration disagrees with the allegations of constitutional and statutory violations, it does take the allegations … very seriously,” a Reed spokesperson said in an email. “Our goal is to make sure that the constitutional rights of everyone who appears in the Atlanta Municipal court are preserved.”
Gundy, declining to comment specifically on the litigation, defended the court’s practices.
“All defendants that come before the court are promptly brought to court and never intentionally nor deliberately refused entry without the opportunity for an appearance,” Gundy wrote in an emailed response to The AJC.
Gundy said there are some occasions when a defendant is not brought before the court promptly because of “circumstances outside the court’s control.
“In those instances, the court still attempts to make sure the defendant’s matters are addressed, especially bail, through defendant’s court- appointed attorney while simultaneously balancing the safety of the defendant and the public,” she wrote.
But Ramsey’s case was not unique.
Henry Dalton is another poor person held in the Fulton County Jail for months because he was unable to post bond — in this case $500 bond. He was charged with indecent exposure after he was observed not wearing pants in Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. Formal charges were filed in Fulton County State Court on Nov. 17 and remains behind bars.
“He was found incompetent in Municipal Court and was bound over to State Court and then lost in the system for 100 days,” Geraghty said.
And last March, the public defender representing 10 men charged with violating various city ordinances filed a petition to get their release after Gundy allegedly did not allow any of them to appear in court nor would she allow their attorneys to request bond for them. They “were flatly denied access to the court in violation of their rights under the state and federal constitutions and the charter of the city of Atlanta.”
The petition was withdrawn when their cases were dismissed or transferred to State Court.