Lawsuit contends Dart illegally holding inmates despite judges’ bond decisions

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(Updated 1:10 p.m. Wednesday to include comments from Public Defender Amy Campanelli)

A woman arrested on aggravated kidnapping charges filed suit this week against Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, contending he illegally held her in custody over the weekend even after she had posted the bond a judge required for her release.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Taphia Williams challenges a new policy issued by the sheriff, who announced last week that he was concerned about the rising number of suspects charged with gun crimes who are being released by judges to home monitoring under the bail reforms that Cook County has enacted.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois as a class action suit on behalf of Williams and other detainees held by the sheriff even after they meet the requirements for electronic monitoring set by the bond court judges.

The sheriff’s chief policy officer, Cara Smith, said Wednesday that Williams had been released on Monday, and that the lawsuit was misguided. “Frankly, this has the feel of grandstanding,” Smith said. “Our obligation is to ensure that electronic monitoring is appropriate in each case.”

Smith’s comments came after the sheriff’s announced new policy drew sharp criticism from other Cook County officials that the sheriff is thwarting the efforts to reform the bail system and ensure that arrested suspects are held in the least restrictive circumstance necessary to protect the public.

Smith told Injustice Watch this week that the sheriff, who had been among the outspoken critics of the old system for holding too many people in custody who did not belong there, is now concerned that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction.

Other county officials, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, this week disputed Dart’s studies that he said showed a dangerous number of those charged with gun crimes are being released on electronic monitoring. Preckwinkle noted that the data Dart collected showed that those released are not committing new crimes.

Smith said that the new policy expands the review already undertaken by the sheriff to ensure that suspects released on home monitoring have a suitable place to stay. She said the review is necessary to ensure that suspects awaiting trial do not commit violent acts in the community.

But Williams’s lawsuit contends that Dart lacks authority to hold suspects who meet the requirements for relief set by Cook County circuit court judges. “Dart’s policy is unconstitutional in that it holds individuals in pre-trial detention, even though a judge has set a bond and the bond has been posted, without legal justification, and because it violates separation of powers in that Dart is refusing to execute and/or effectively overruling a binding judicial order,” states the lawsuit, filed by attorney Sarah Garber.

The lawsuit seeks class-action status on behalf of all detainees being denied release after meeting the conditions set by the judge in bond court.

In Williams’s case, the lawsuit states, she originally was held on $250,000 bond after her September arrest. That month, Chief Judge Timothy Evans instituted a reform of the bail system, designed to ensure that fewer suspects were held in custody who had not committed any crime and who did not need to be locked up awaiting trial.

Williams’s bail was then reviewed and lowered in October to $50,000, with electronic monitoring as a condition of release. That meant Williams could go home and be confined there if she posted $5,000 bond, 10 percent of the bail amount.

The Chicago Community Bond Fund posted that amount last week, the lawsuit states. But Williams remains held, nevertheless, based on Dart’s review.

“As the Public Defender, I will do everything that I can to stop you, pursuant to the federal and Illinois Constitutions, from usurping the power of the judiciary and the other stakeholders who are moving forward on bond reform,” wrote Amy Campanelli, the Cook County public defender, in a letter to Dart that she released Wednesday. “As the Sheriff, you do not have the authority to hold someone because you disagree with a judge’s ruling.”

She also took issue with Dart’s concern that suspects arrested on gun charges were being returned to neighborhoods of high crime. That, wrote Campanelli, “smacks of geographic and racial discrimination. I certainly hope that you are not advocating that release decisions be controlled by the neighborhood where someone lives.”