- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A New Orleans judge routinely sets high bails without regard to defendants’ ability to pay, violating their constitutional rights, advocacy groups claim in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

Magistrate Judge Harry Cantrell’s criminal court bail practices leave impoverished people accused of non-violent crimes behind bars for days, weeks and sometime months in the dangerously violent New Orleans jail, the lawsuit says.

Two current defendants in the New Orleans jail are named as plaintiffs: a father of three who works temporary jobs since being laid off four months ago, and a retiree caring for his 92-year-old father. Both were arrested on drug charges.

The Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the Civil Rights Corps Lawyers are seeking class action status on behalf of these and other impoverished defendants. They want a federal court ruling that Cantrell is violating the due process rights of poor defendants, and that his routine refusal to accept cash bail reflects a conflict of interest, since it generates fees for the court by forcing defendants to buy bonds through a surety company.

The lawsuit quotes Cantrell as saying he never requires a bond of less than $2,500.

“First of all, this court never goes any lower than $2,500,” Cantrell told one defense lawyer, according to a transcript in the case of a man facing a “negligent injuring charge” after a gun he was cleaning went off.

“Defendant Cantrell refuses to consider defense arguments on bail amounts, in flagrant violation of the Due Process Clause,” the lawsuit says.

Tuesday’s lawsuit echoes a separate civil rights suit filed in 2015 accusing the city’s criminal court judges of running a “debtor’s prison” by jailing people who cannot afford court fees. The city judges asked the federal court last week to dismiss that case, saying they have ceased the practices at issue and have written off roughly $1 million in court debts after a review of about 4,100 cases.

No hearing date has been set in either suit.

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