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Class-action suit open to tens of thousands
Sep 01, 2006 12:00 am
Individuals who were arrested and had their bond set by a Wilson County commissioner during the past five years are part of a class-action lawsuit accusing the county of unconstitutionally and arbitrarily setting bail amounts.
U.S. District Court Judge Aleta Traughber ruled Friday a Mt. Juliet resident represented by attorney Jerry Gonzales can represent between 36,000 and 48,000 people who have had bail set by a judicial commissioner at the Wilson County Jail over the past five years.
Gonzales argues the county's system violates the Eighth Amendment provision of the U.S. Constitution mandating no "excessive bail" shall be set. Bond is supposed to be set on factors such as ties to the community and flight risk, but the suit claims a pre-determined formula is often used regardless of the defendant. It also alleges bond is sometimes set based on the attitude of the defendant.
In her ruling, Traughber considered evidence stating judicial commissioners often set bail arbitrarily with a pre-established mathematical system.
In his deposition one judicial commissioner, Charles Churchwell, admitted his formula came from "out of my head."
The primary plaintiff, Stephanie Staley, had her bond changed by Churchwell from $500 to $2,500 – with Churchwell citing the "way she was acting toward authority figures" – after her arrest in Mt. Juliet on Dec. 19., 2003, according to depositions.
"I figured her to be a risk not to come to court," Churchwell said in the March 15 deposition.
Gonzales said the case would likely be headed to mediation, seeking to force the county to report to federal court on a regular basis on how bonds are set. However, Traughber did leave open the possibility of punitive damages, meaning the county could be forced to shell out an unspecified amount to a massive plaintiff group.
"If I ultimately prevail in this, I will ask the court to require Wilson County to submit at least quarterly reports … about individuals, what bond was set, what criteria did they use … did they use an arbitrary mathematical formula, etc.," Gonzales said. "I'm going to ask for long-term federal monitoring for Wilson County because it's become evident Wilson County can't monitor itself."
Churchwell also said in his deposition he considered factors such as mental condition and prior criminal records.
While Wilson County Sheriff Terry Ashe, former Mt. Juliet Mayor Kevin Mack and Mt. Juliet Police Officer Bonnie Harris are listed as defendants, Gonzales said they are no longer defendants in the case.
Instead, the county is culpable because the Wilson County Commission appoints judicial commissioners. They are primarily regulated by the county's Judicial Committee.
Ashe is named, along with several jail guards, in an excessive force lawsuit, in which Gonzales is also seeking mediation.
Fellow judicial commissioner Stacy Swindell said in her March 15 deposition she has been known to consider the defendant's "demeanor while they're in booking."
Swindell indicated she has set bonds higher based on the behavior of the subject.
"… If I try to ask them questions and talk to them about their bond or about anything and they cuss at me or spit at me, you know, and they have no respect for me, then I'll probably set their bond amount a little bit higher because I don't think they would have respect for the judge or they may not show up for court," Swindell said.
Several other judicial commissioners said they have been asked by arresting police officers to set a person's bond higher because they had an attitude with the officer at the time of arrest.
No court date has been set, but Gonzales said he hoped mediation proceedings would begin as early as next month.
Staff Writer Jason Cox can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 45 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.