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Dixon v. City of St. Louis

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 11, 2019

DAVID DIXON, et al. Plaintiffs,
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, et al., Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs' motions for class certification (ECF No. 3) and preliminary injunction (ECF No. 41) and Defendants' motions to dismiss the case (ECF Nos. 49, 51). For the reasons set forth below, Plaintiffs' motions will be granted, and Defendants' motions will be denied.


         Named Plaintiffs David Dixon, Jeffrey Rozelle, Aaron Thurman, and Richard Robards were detained in St. Louis jails because they were unable to afford bail. Defendants are the City of St. Louis, its Commissioner of Corrections Dale Glass, and its Sheriff Vernon Betts (together, the City) and several judges of the 22nd Circuit (the Judges).[1] On January 28, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a class action complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 asserting that Defendants violated their constitutional rights to equal protection and substantive and procedural due process by detaining them after arrest without an opportunity to challenge the conditions of their release. The facts set forth in the complaint can be summarized as follows.

         Plaintiffs' Claims

          When a person is arrested in the City of St. Louis, a bond commissioner employed by the City makes a recommendation to a duty judge to set bond to secure the arrestee's court appearance.[2] In formulating the recommendation, the commissioner considers the charges and any prior convictions but does not inquire into the arrestee's ability to pay, risk of flight, or danger to the public; the duty judge then sets bond on the commissioner's recommendation. If an arrestee can afford to pay the cash bond in full, then the City will release him upon payment. If not, he remains detained until a first appearance, which is held within 48 hours of arrest and by videoconference from the jail. Plaintiffs allege that the sheriff's deputies who escort arrestees to their video hearings instruct them not to speak and specifically not to request a bond modification. The judge reads the charges, states the bail amount pursuant to the commissioner's recommendation, and asks the arrestee whether he intends to retain counsel. The hearing lasts one to two minutes and is not on the record. Plaintiffs allege that, if an arrestee attempts to contest his bail amount, the judge informs him that he cannot request a modification until he obtains counsel and sets a motion hearing. For indigent individuals eligible for a public defender, that process takes approximately five weeks. Arrestees who do not qualify for a public defender but cannot afford to pay a private attorney often remain detained even longer.

         Plaintiffs aver that, even when arrestees receive the assistance of counsel on a motion for modification, the Judges' bail-setting practices remain constitutionally inadequate in that the Judges fail to consider an arrestee's financial circumstances or make specific findings as to alternative release conditions. Plaintiffs further state that detainees in the Workhouse are exposed to dangerous and inhumane conditions such as extreme temperatures, lack of sanitation, vermin infestations, and violence. This period of incarceration often results in physical and mental health problems, loss of employment, eviction, and family separation.

         Plaintiffs request the following forms of relief:

1. A declaratory judgment that Defendants violate the Plaintiffs' and class members' rights by issuing detention orders without due process;
2. A declaratory judgment that Defendants violate the Plaintiffs' and class members' rights by operating a system of wealth-based detention that keeps them in jail because they cannot afford to pay monetary conditions of release, without an inquiry or findings concerning their ability to pay, the necessity of detention, and alternative release conditions;
3. A declaratory judgment that Plaintiffs and class members are entitled to an individualized hearing regarding release conditions and including:
a. Notice that financial information will be collected, and the significance thereof;
b. An individualized determination of the arrestee's ability to pay and how much;
c. An opportunity to be heard concerning one's ability to pay and the necessity of non-monetary release conditions, including an opportunity to present and rebut evidence and argue the issues;
d. Substantive findings by the court on the record as to why detention is warranted and why less restrictive alternatives are insufficient; and
e. Free legal counsel;
4. A declaratory judgment that the Sheriff and Commissioner of Corrections must not enforce any order requiring secured money bail or a monetary release condition that was imposed prior to an individualized hearing and that is not accompanied by a record reflecting the foregoing procedures and findings;
5. An order permanently enjoining Defendants from operating and enforcing a system of wealth-based detention that keeps Plaintiffs and class members in jail because they cannot afford to pay monetary release conditions, without an inquiry or findings concerning their ability to pay, alternative release conditions, and the necessity of detention;
6. An order permanently enjoining Defendants from operating and enforcing pretrial detention without constitutionally valid process as described above; and
7. An order directing the Sheriff not to instruct arrestees to remain silent during their hearings.

         Procedural History

          Concurrent with their complaint, Plaintiffs filed a motion for temporary restraining order (ECF No. 5), which was served on Defendants on Tuesday, January 29, 2019. The next day, the parties appeared through counsel for a hearing and informed the Court that they had reached a tentative agreement obviating the immediate need for a hearing on the TRO motion. The parties' finalized the terms of that agreement on the record and filed it later that day (ECF No. 19). Principally, the parties agreed that Plaintiffs would receive a bond hearing in accordance with proposed revised Missouri Supreme Court Rule 33.01, scheduled to take effect July 1, 2019. This revised rule clarifies that a court cannot impose cash bail absent an individualized assessment of an arrestee's financial circumstances, flight risk, threat to public safety, and consideration of alternative release conditions; it further provides the right to a review hearing on the record within seven days and requires the court to make written findings supported by clear and convincing evidence.

         The next day, Thursday, January 31, Defendants held bond hearings for the named Plaintiffs, who appeared through counsel. At the close of those hearings, two Plaintiffs were released without bond, with other conditions. Two others did not receive any reduction in bond. On Monday, February 4, Plaintiff's counsel attempted to post bail for the two Plaintiffs still detained, by cashier's checks for $15, 000 and $30, 000, respectively. Defendants initially refused to accept payment by cashier's check. Plaintiffs' counsel spent the entirety of Tuesday, February 5 communicating with various Defendants and other officials to secure approval and acceptance of payment by cashier's check, resulting in the two men's release from the Workhouse at 8 p.m. that night.

         On February 21, 2019, Plaintiffs filed a motion for preliminary injunction seeking to enjoin Defendants' practice of detaining arrestees who are unable to pay cash bail without an individualized hearing on their financial circumstances and the necessity of detention. Specifically, Plaintiffs demand: (1) notice of the nature and significance of the financial information required, (2) a prompt hearing, on the record, regarding the person's ability to pay, (3) legal counsel at such hearings, (4) findings on the record as to whether the person has the ability to pay, and (5) clear and convincing evidence supporting the necessity of detention. Attached to Plaintiffs' motion is a proposed order enjoining Jail Commissioner Glass from enforcing any bail order that operates as a de facto detention order due to an arrestee's inability to pay, unless such order is accompanied by a determination, reflecting the foregoing safeguards, that detention is necessary because there are no less restrictive alternatives to ensure the arrestee's future court appearance or the public's safety.

         On March 1, 2019, Defendants filed motions to dismiss the case. The City Defendants assert that they have no authority to establish bail conditions and no policy or custom of silencing arrestees in initial appearances. The Defendant Judges assert theories of immunity and abstention.

         On April 9, 2019, Plaintiffs requested that their motion for preliminary injunction be decided on the written record. ECF No. 84. After some discussion among counsel, the parties agreed to submit the matter on the written record. The evidence before the Court consists of the following documents (referenced in further detail infra):

• 17 declarations by Plaintiffs and other arrestees describing: a lack of process at their initial appearances; inhumane living conditions and deprivations in detention facilities; and the personal impact of detention on their families and other dependents (ECF No. 41, Ex. 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17, 18, 21, 22, 23, 26, 27, 28);
• Nine declarations by arrestees' family members and other dependents describing hardships resulting from their absence, such as loss of income, loss of caregiving, displacement of children, loss of transportation, and loss of benefits (ECF Nos. 41, Ex. 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, 24, 25);
• Bond commissioner reports on the four named Plaintiffs and three other arrestees, only one of which contains an arrestee's personal information (e.g., family ties, employment, financial resources, character, mental condition, length of residency in the community); ECF No. 41, Ex. 6.
• Three declarations by law student Elizabeth Forester, who observed initial appearances in the 22nd circuit and collected information from a random sample of 222 cases (ECF No. 41, Ex. 5; No. 83, Ex. 1; No. 93, Ex. 3);
• 164 bond commissioner reports from Forester's sample containing virtually no personal information relevant to individual release conditions (ECF No. 83, Ex. 2.)
• The declaration of the 22nd circuit district defender, Mary Fox, who observes initial appearances on a regular basis (ECF No. 93, Ex. 2);
• A letter from The Bail Project of St. Louis providing statistics about its clients' demographics and rate of court appearances (ECF No. 41, Ex. 29); and
• Two affidavits by a bond officer supervisor, Donald Kearbey, generally describing Defendants' practices at initial appearances (ECF Nos. 59 and 91, Ex. 1).

         The case is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.


         Class Certification

          Also concurrent with their complaint, Plaintiffs filed a motion to certify a class comprised of “all arrestees who are or will be detained in the Medium Security Institution (the Workhouse) or the City Justice Center (CJC), operated by the City of St. Louis, post-arrest ...

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