Gentry

Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry during a press conference Wednesday, Nov. 30.

The Cullman County Sheriff’s Office has reinstated a cash bond policy after a 2018 federally placed injunction was lifted by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday.

“Today is a good day,” Sheriff Matt Gentry said during a press conference held Wednesday morning. “After five years of fighting, today — as of 8 o’clock — we went back to bail system in Cullman County.”

The injunction stemmed from a 2017 class action lawsuit against the CCSO, Gentry and several members of Cullman’s 32nd Judicial Circuit Court. Plaintiffs in the suit — comprised mostly of people facing drug offense charges — claimed that the defendants’ use of a “one size fits all” bond schedule unfairly affected impoverished individuals.

The complaint stated, “In Cullman County, arrestees face two possible outcomes depending on their wealth status. Wealthy arrestees purchase their freedom by paying an arbitrary amount set by a magistrate relying upon a bail schedule and a policy adopted by the office of the Clerk. Poor arrestees simply remain stuck behind bars because they cannot afford to pay the Clerk/Magistrate [sic] pre-determined sum of one million dollars, set in every drug trafficking case. If a person is charged with more than one offense, the fixed amount for each offense is added together to determine the total amount of bail required for release. Those arrestees who are too poor to afford to pay excessive bail remain in jail because of their poverty. In Defendant’s wealth based [sic] detention scheme, the sole criteria [sic] determining whether a pretrial arrestee walks free or sits in jail is the amount of money he or she has.”

Bradley Hester joined the suit after being arrested on July 27, 2017, for a misdemeanor charge of possession of drug paraphernalia. Hester was taken into custody and informed that he would be released after a $1,000 cash bond payment. Hester, who claimed indigent status, said without stable income and no substantial assets, he was unable to do so.

According to the complaint, Hester’s initial court appearance was without counsel — via video link — a day or two after his arrest.

“At no point during this brief hearing did the magistrate inquire into Mr. Hester’s ability to pay the secured financial condition of release that she had imposed or give him the opportunity to say he could not pay it,” the complaint states. “The magistrate did not ask him any questions at all or tell him when his next court appearance would be. Although the magistrate told him that he could apply for an attorney, a correctional officer told him that he did not need an attorney because he was only charged with a misdemeanor.”

The complaint also states that due to three people being assigned to his cell with only two beds, Hester was forced to sleep on the floor with an open and bleeding spider bite wound on his hand as he awaited his next court appearance.

On Sept. 6, 2018, U.S. District Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala issued the injunction ordering the CCSO to release all bail eligible defendants on unsecured appearance bonds with exceptions for those “arrested for failure to appear or on charges that, by statute, require detention for a period of time; defendants who are intoxicated; defendants who are in need of medical attention; or defendants who have holds on their detention from other jurisdictions. In addition the sheriff shall not immediately release a defendant for whom an arresting officer has submitted a bail request form.”

The order was issued after defendants declined the court’s request for a telephone conference between both parties to propose terms for a preliminary injunction.

Since the order was placed, Gentry and the CCSO have been fighting the decision through the appeals process, ultimately resulting in the ruling to overturn the injunction by the 11th Circuit Court which reinstated the 2018 secured bond schedule.

“For the last five years, we have fought tooth and nail over this lawsuit, and we fought it all the way to the 11th circuit. They made a ruling in our favor, that, basically, we were doing everything right under a 2018 order that was in place over our presiding judge with regard to bail. So, that means the injunction was lifted, and this morning, after five years we have bail again in Cullman County,” Gentry said.

Cullman Attorney Melvin Hasting — who originally represented the plaintiff Ray Shcultz before the case was taken on by the Southern Poverty Law Center — that prior to the lawsuits filing, he would regularly have clients spend weeks in jail without a conviction before being seen by a judge. He said that the court’s policies, requiring an accused person to be seen by a judge within 72 hours of their arrest, is now being more strictly enforced.

“The real result of this lawsuit is you don’t have people stuck in jail anymore. They’re actually getting them in front of a judge,” Hasting said, speaking to The Times on Wednesday.

At Wednesday’s press conference, Gentry commented on the finality of the court’s decision.

“This is done,” he said. “Once the 11th circuit made its ruling for the injunction to be lifted, then the 2018 order that our presiding judge put in place is the final ruling.”

Hasting disagreed. Citing the court’s order, he said that although the injunction was lifted, and the judicial defendants were dismissed, that the lawsuit is still ongoing.

The order states: “ORDER of USCA Before Rosenbaum, Lago and Anderson, USCJ, we AFFIRM the district courts decision not to abstain from hearing this case under Younger and AFFIRM the court’s denial of Sheriff Gentry’s motion to dismiss. We DISMISS the Judicial Defendants from the present appeal. and we REVERSE the district court’s entry of a preliminary injunction and REMAND for further proceedings consistent with this opinion; Issued as mandate 11/28/2022.”

Regardless of the case’s status, Gentry is said that he will continue to fight for what he believes is in the best interest of the community.

“I love my community more than anybody can ever imagine. and what I will tell you is this, you may be seeing other people give their places, their communities, away inch by inch, but one thing I can tell you is this: We’ve drawn a line in the sand, and we’re not going to give them one inch, not one damn inch. You have my word on that.”

Requests for comment from the Southern Poverty Law Center were not answered by deadline.

Patrick Camp can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 238

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