Cullman County Detention Center

The federal lawsuit challenging Cullman County’s bail system could impact policies across the state.

U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala this week issued a preliminary injunction to force Cullman County to alter how some defendants make bond to avoid incarceration, declaring the system unconstitutional. The case, however, is not settled.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama is following the case closely, contending as well that the county’s system for making bond favors defendants who have wealth.

“This should be about who is dangerous to the public, not who can pay to stay out of jail,” said ACLU staff attorney Brock Boone. “But that’s what we see in Cullman County. Across the state every county does it differently, but what you see mostly is that the rich get out and poor stay in.”

That contention is what started the lawsuit by Randall Hester against Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry.

Hester, who was arrested on July 27, 2017 for misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia was assigned a $1,000 bond but claimed indigent status and inability to pay. He remained in custody several days and joined an existing class-action suit filed in March 2017 against Sheriff Matt Gentry, the State of Alabama, and the 32nd Judicial Circuit.

Hester’s claim is that the Cullman County practice of basing release after a charge on the ability to meet bonds violates the Eighth Amendment which states: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Hester’s suit names Gentry as a defendant, along with Cullman County Circuit Judges Martha Williams and Greg Nicholas, District Judges Kim Chaney and Rusty Turner, Circuit Clerk Lisa McSwain, Clerk Magistrates Amy Black and Joan White, Alabama Administrative Office of Courts officer Randy Helms, and County Commissioners Kenneth Walker, Garry Marchman and Kerry Watson.

The original complaint accuses the defendants of permitting the ongoing operation of a bonding “scheme” for criminal defendants — particularly accused drug traffickers, who face a standard property bond of $1 million if arrested in Cullman County.

Adjustments to meeting bond requirements were made by local judicial officials who argued that Hester’s complaint was moot after changes were made.

“Cullman County is in many ways typical of courts across Alabama. Far too often, its bail system results in people being locked away pretrial simply because they could not pay. Courts throughout Alabama, and the country, are setting bail above what people can pay, without any protections to ensure that this draconian penalty is used only when absolutely necessary,” Boone said.

Gentry and local judges have not commented on the last injunction from the federal judge.

Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper, whose department transports suspect to the county-run detention center, said the judge’s order will mean some extra work for law enforcement officials in determining who needs to remain in custody. But he also noted that the judge left ample options for law enforcement officers to use their judgment in determining when a suspect should remain incarcerated.

“Anyone who is impaired will remain in custody under the law, and we can also look, for example, at a case when someone involved in domestic violence may pose a threat to another person if immediately set free,” Culpepper said. “So those options and judgments that we make remain in place when someone poses a threat to the public or himself and needs medical treatment.”

The judge’s order on Thursday came after she had offered to allow attorneys for Hester and the sheriff and local judicial officials to work out terms of the injunction through conference. The defendants declined the negotiation.

“Reforms are underway. Most municipal courts in Alabama have already moved away from money bail. Today’s decision affirms that progress, and encourages more, recognizing that our district and circuit courts still have a long way to go,” said Katherine Hubbard, attorney for Civil Rights Corps. “We look forward to working with the county officials to ensure their new practices comply with the preliminary injunction order, and we will continue our litigation against Cullman County until permanent relief is implemented. We hope other courts will take notice and end these abuses in their own jurisdictions without waiting for a lawsuit to force the issue.”

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David Palmer has decades of experience in the newspaper industry. He currently serves as editor of The Cullman Times.

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