Calif. Cities Sue To Block Pre-Arraignment Zero Bail System

By Gina Kim | October 2, 2023, 8:42 PM EDT ·

Several cities sued the Los Angeles County Superior Court in California state court over its pre-arraignment zero bail system for arrestees detained for low-level offenses, alleging it doesn't consider public safety and emboldens criminals to seamlessly continue criminal activity "with impunity and with little actual imminent consequences."

On Friday, a group of Southern California cities including Whittier, Santa Fe Springs, Glendora and Downey filed a lawsuit against the L.A. County Superior Court, its executive committee of judges, presiding Judge Samantha P. Jessner and supervising Judge Sam Ohta of the criminal division over the current 2023 bail schedule. It was adopted this year following a decision issued on May 16 by Superior Court Judge Lawrence P. Riff that blocked the city and county from enforcing cash bail systems against detainees for low-level offenses prior to arraignment. 

The cities argue in the Friday complaint that the current blanket bail schedules are applicable to all criminal suspects, detainees and defendants throughout the county, but they don't meet the mandatory requirements of county and court officials to primarily consider public safety, the severity of the offense, prior records and the probability of guaranteeing their appearance in court when they prepared and adopted the uniform bail schedules countywide. 

"Defendants fail to satisfy their mandatory duties as to the setting of bail, by the adoption and implementation of the bail schedules, in that the bail schedules impose a blanket lifting of whole swaths of categories from being bailable offenses, and requires only citation and release, or booking and release, as to blanket categories of offenses — with no detention or individualized evaluations or assessments of particular crimes or individuals," the complaint says.

Furthermore, the system removes the process by which law enforcement can address repeat offenders and fails to provide any judicial review at all over wide categories of offenses, the cities allege. 

"This is a vast abdication of the judicial obligations relating to bail determinations, and particularly as to the mandatory legal obligation to account for victims' rights and public safety," the cities say.

They reference the "grave public concern regarding public safety" in light of reduced enforcement and criminal penalties for several types of "low-level" offenses, including comments from members of the public expressing their worries about the new zero bail system following the recent wave of "mob-style smash-and-grab burglaries," along with reports of arrestees being quickly released and resuming their criminal activities, according to the suit. 

"Regardless of whether criminal suspects are held accountable at some later point in time, the message criminals get from the wide provision of cite-release or booking-release in the bail schedules is that they can immediately continue criminal activity with impunity, and with little actual, imminent consequences," Friday's filing states.

The suit comes nearly five months after Judge Riff issued a preliminary injunction sought by a proposed class of individuals — which included people experiencing homelessness and those who couldn't afford to post bail — requiring the L.A. County Sheriffs' Department and L.A. Police Department follow an October 2020 policy enacted during the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce jail overcrowding that doesn't require arrestees booked for nonviolent offenses to post cash bail before they're released. 

The court's preliminary injunction didn't apply to those arrested for capital offenses, violent crimes or those who were ineligible for bail, have an open and unresolved criminal case, or are the subject of an arrest warrant.

Judge Riff said the proposed class, led by plaintiff Phillip Urquidi, had shown the defendants' conduct in enforcing the secured money bail schedules against poor individuals "solely for the reason of their poverty is a clear, pervasive and serious constitutional violation."

Urquidi's case didn't involve a judicial determination of the detainees' release conditions on bail and only involved the amount of time between their arrest and first court appearance. It was also the first one in California to consider, on the merits, the issuance of a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of a cash bail schedule during pre-arraignment.

The current misdemeanor and felony bail schedules at issue were first adopted on July 18, were revised on Sept. 12, and went into effect on Oct. 1.

The cities claim in their suit that the bail schedules have been established at the expense of victims and public safety.

"Further, money bail is not merely a matter of who can pay; 'courts have authority to impose reasonable conditions related to public safety on persons released on bail,'" the complaint contends. "Zero dollars does not equal zero consequences; however, the bail schedules make the balance of the rights of offenders so weighty that victims and public safety are given zero value. The bail schedules' one-size-fits-all approach fits no one, as to the mandatory balancing considerations required by law."

The cities point to an example in Whittier where an individual was arrested in October 2020 for possessing a loaded firearm. His case had judicial consideration via a magistrate review under the then-bail schedule for the county that was completed within three hours of his arrest. 

That detainee was released and ordered to appear in court at a later date, but a few hours after his release, he attacked and injured a Whittier police officer while the officer was responding to an unrelated call, the complaint says. 

Nor are there provisions in the bail schedules for any exceptions for repeat offenders or those known to law enforcement, according to the cities, which suggest there are less intrusive forms of controlling community risk through electronic monitoring, restraining orders or drug and alcohol treatment.

"Whatever the constitutional deficiencies are of the current money bail system, it cannot be simply washed away — and nothing implemented in its place," the suit argues. "The lack of any real judicial assessment or review, and complete lack of bail — without any substitute of conditions or other consequences for wide categories of crime, and not taking into account factual circumstances of crimes or individual detainees, does nothing to further public safety."

Representatives for the plaintiffs did not immediately respond to inquiries seeking comment Monday.

"Pursuant to the California Code of Judicial Ethics Canon 3B(9), the court cannot comment on pending litigation," a spokesperson for the L.A. County Superior Court told Law360 in an email Monday evening.

The cities are represented by Gary S. Kranker, Kimberly Hall Barlow and Krista MacNevin Jee of Jones Mayer.

Counsel information for the defendants was not immediately available.

The case is City of Whittier et al. v. Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles, et al., case number 23STCP03579, in the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.

--Editing by Kristen Becker.

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