Local courts that jail poor defendants because they can't afford to pay bail are unlawfully discriminating against the poor, federal attorneys say in a legal brief in a Georgia lawsuit.
The U.S. Justice Department says such policies are unconstitutional.
The federal brief was filed Thursday with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the lawsuit of a north Georgia man who spent six days in jail in the city of Calhoun because he couldn't afford $160 bail following his arrest on a misdemeanor charge.
U.S. Justice Department lawyers argue that such policies "unlawfully discriminate" against poor defendants by using preset bail amounts that don't take into account the accused person's ability to pay.
The department said it's the first time it has weighed in with a legal opinion in federal court on bail systems used by state and local courts.
Maurice Walker, 54, sued Calhoun in U.S. District Court following his arrest last September on a misdemeanor charge of walking while intoxicated. Under a city ordinance, the offense carried a preset $160 bail for Walker to avoid jail before his first appearance before a judge.
Walker says he lives on $540 a month in Social Security disability benefits and couldn't afford to post bail. He was jailed for six days until a municipal court judge could look at his case.
Walker contends the city's bail policy violates the equal protection rights of poor defendants and should be found unconstitutional. A U.S. District Court judge in January suspended the policy until the case is settled, finding Walker had a "substantial likelihood" of winning. Attorneys for the city appealed that decision to the 11th Circuit.
The Justice Department's brief, signed by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta and U.S. Attorney John A. Horn of the Northern District of Georgia, argued defendants jailed because they can't afford bail often pose little risk of skipping court appearances and aren't considered a threat to their communities.
The Supreme Court has ruled that jailing people just because they can't pay a fine or fee, without considering some other alternative, "effectively denies equal protection to one class of people within the criminal justice system," the Justice Department's 34-page legal filing said.
A federal court struck down a similar bail policy in Moss Point, Mississippi, in 2015.
In their own legal filings, attorneys for Calhoun have defended the city's bail practices and argued defendants such as Walker "should not be relieved from the requirement of having to attempt to make bail merely upon a bare claim of indigent status."
They also said misdemeanor and city ordinance violations for which defendants face preset bail "are not petty, trivial offenses," and that those arrested for violations do "pose a risk or danger to the community and, in some instances, themselves."
"We believe the city of Calhoun is in the right and is following state law," said Andy Davis, an attorney for the Georgia city.
Groups that have filed legal briefs defending Calhoun's policy include the International Municipal Lawyers Association, the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Sheriffs Association.
Attorneys for the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represents Walker, had no comment on the Justice Department's filing, said Kathryn Hamoudah, a spokeswoman for the center.