Two Washington D.C.-based advocacy groups are suing Hamblen County officials on behalf of four jail inmates in a bail bond-related federal lawsuit that does not allege the bail system here operates any differently than Tennessee’s other 94 counties.
The civil-rights lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on Sunday, alleges the bail system in Hamblen County creates a “two-tier system of pretrial justice” that punishes inmates who don’t have enough money to make bonds.
Unlike many federal jail-related lawsuits, the plaintiffs are not asking for monetary damages. Rather, they’re seeking a declaration that Hamblen County’s policies and practices violate cash-strapped inmates’ rights to equal protection, substantive and procedural due process and representation by counsel.
“Plaintiffs further request that the court issue appropriate and injunctive relief that will ensure that individuals in Hamblen County do not remain in jail prior to the trial solely because of their poverty, and without the substantive findings and procedural safeguards that the Constitution requires before the government may deprive an individual of pretrial liberty,” the lawsuit states.
Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain and County Attorney Chris Capps, who are not parties to the lawsuit, declined to comment on the newly pending litigation. County government’s liability insurance company will represent Hamblen County.
Attorneys Tara Mikkilineni of the Civil Rights Corps and Seth Wayne of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, allege bail bonds are effective detention orders for many, financial barriers that cost inmates jobs, destroy their family life, subject them to danger in an overcrowded jail and railroad detainees into guilty pleas whether or not they committed crimes.
Bonds are frequently set and enforced without consideration of the inmates’ ability to pay, which the attorneys argue is a constitutionally protected right, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs in the case are Michelle Torres, Robbie Johnson-Loveday, Amanda Cameron and Bethany Edmond, all of whom were arrested this year.
The four have been unable to make bonds, which range from $1,500 to $75,000, according to the lawsuit.
The defendants in the case are Hamblen County General Sessions Court Judge W. Douglas Collins; Circuit Court Clerk Teresa West; three judicial commissioners with the authority to set bonds, Katie West Moore, Nancy Phillips and Kathy Robertson; and Sheriff Esco Jarnagin.
Mikkilineni and Wayne assert the predicaments of the four women are representative of many hundreds of current and former Hamblen County Jail inmates, and the attorneys make the case that a judge should certify the litigation as class-action lawsuit.
“Defendants are responsible for discriminatory practice that strip people of their fundamental constitutional rights to pretrial liberty and to freedom from being jailed solely because of their poverty,” the 33-page lawsuit states. “Moreover, defendants’ policies and practices that detain presumptively innocent people prior to trial lack even the most basic procedural protections.”
The organizations Mikkilineni and Wayne represent have been involved in other lawsuits in Tennessee and other states challenging the constitutionality the cash-bond system.