Lawsuit claiming Tom Dart unlawfully detained people after they posted bond can go forward

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In February 2018, Taphia Williams was held in Cook County Jail for more than 72 hours after she had posted bond under a policy by Sheriff Tom Dart to conduct a review of anyone in the jail who was ordered released on electronic monitoring.

On Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that Williams and eight other Black Chicagoans who were held in jail for up to two weeks after paying bond can pursue a lawsuit against Dart for violating their constitutional rights.

The case now goes back to U.S. District Court Judge Harry D. Leinenweber, who dismissed the suit in May 2019.

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Judge David F. Hamilton, writing for the unanimous panel, said the Fourth Amendment does not require any particular process for administering bail admissions, but it does require that whatever system is adopted does not result in unreasonable seizures.

“The Sheriff’s flat refusal to heed the courts’ bail orders alleged in this case, based on nothing more than a policy disagreement and resulting in unjustified detentions of multiple days, simply will not do,” Hamilton wrote.

In an emailed statement, Sara Garber, an attorney for the plaintiffs, cheered the appellate court’s decision.

“This is a huge victory for our clients and numerous other individuals who were unlawfully detained for days and weeks by Sheriff Dart pursuant to his so-called ‘administrative review’ policy,” she said.

Matt Walberg, a spokesperson for Dart, said in a statement that “The short-lived review program, at issue in this litigation, was based on the safety of the public and the participants. Any suggestion to the contrary is absurd.”

Walberg said the administrative review policy is no longer in effect, but the sheriff’s office still reviews electronic monitoring orders to ensure they comply with state law.

The lawsuit stems from a decision by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in February 2018 to conduct its own reviews of cases where a judge had ordered electronic monitoring as a condition of pretrial release. Dart said in a letter to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle at the time that he was concerned about suspects arrested on gun charges reoffending while on electronic monitoring.

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Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart warned County Board President Toni Preckwinkle that the way bail reforms are being enacted risks a dangerous situation. But Preckwinkle responded that Dart's own numbers do not support that conclusion.

Preckwinkle wrote in response to Dart that the sheriff’s own data showed that only 2.5 percent of people were rebooked for a felony gun charge after release.

The sheriff’s letter and review policy came in response to bond court reforms that aimed to ensure that people were not being held in the jail solely because they could not afford to pay their bond. In the wake of those reforms, the number of people in the jail fell from about 7,500 to less than 5,800 in just 15 months, according to a report from the Office of the Chief Judge.

Since then, the number of people in the jail has dropped further, to about 4,900, while the number of people on the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program has reached a record high, according to the sheriff’s office. On Friday, there were 3,324 people on electronic monitoring, according to Walberg.

“Through this opinion, the Seventh Circuit has made clear that those ordered to the Sheriff’s EM program must be placed into the program and released without concern for the program’s capacity, its staffing or its impact on the safety of Cook County citizens,” Walberg wrote.

Plaintiffs held long after they had posted bond

Williams was arrested on an aggravated kidnapping charge in September 2017, according to the lawsuit, and her bond was originally set at $250,000. After the bond reforms went into effect, a judge reduced her bond to $50,000 with electronic monitoring as a condition of her release. The Chicago Community Bond Fund paid her bail, but a jail officer initially told the nonprofit that her case was “under review,” according to the suit. She was released hours after she filed the lawsuit.

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Lawsuit contends Dart illegally holding inmates despite judges’ bond decisions

A recent inmate in Cook County jail has brought a class action suit against Sheriff Tom Dart, contending she was illegally held in custody even after she met the requirements set by a judge for release on electronic monitoring. The sheriff's office contends the complaints about the new review policy are unfounded and "grandstanding."

Plaintiff Joshua Atwater was already on the sheriff’s electronic monitoring program when he was arrested for mistakenly missing a court date, according to the lawsuit. A judge ordered him released under the same electronic monitoring conditions, but the sheriff held him for an additional six days and only released him on the condition that he not have contact with his five children, a condition “not imposed by the court but cut by the Sheriff from whole cloth,” the appellate court noted disapprovingly.

Another plaintiff, 18-year-old Marcus Johnson, was detained for 12 days after his father posted his $300 bond. The lawsuit alleges that Johnson, a high school student at the time, was kicked out of school for missing too many days and deemed ineligible for graduation. Johnson was forced to enroll in an alternative high school to complete his degree, according to the suit.

The appellate court agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments that Dart’s policy usurped the power of the judiciary to set bond conditions.

“Courts, not sheriffs, make pretrial detention decisions,” Judge Hamilton wrote.

The lawsuit also alleges that the sheriff’s policy was racially discriminatory because 80 percent of the more than 80 people who were unlawfully detained due to the sheriff’s review policy were Black. The appellate court allowed this claim to go forward as well.

“Dart’s policy unconstitutionally targeted African Americans by outwardly using criteria such as number of prior arrests, neighborhood of residence, and current pending charge, to determine who would be detained and who would not be detained,” the lawsuit states.

The appellate court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the plaintiffs qualify for class certification. Garber said a new court date for the case has not yet been scheduled, but she expected a virtual status hearing would take place soon.

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