A federal judge on Thursday dismissed a lawsuit challenging Harris County’s felony bail system as unconstitutional, a decision largely based on a higher court’s ruling in a similar Dallas County case.
In throwing out the lawsuit, Russell v. Harris County, U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal pointed to an appellate court ruling in March that found a new state law had made the Dallas County case challenging bail practices there moot. The precedent set in that ruling applied to the Harris County case, Rosenthal said.
“Having made that ruling, the court need not address any other basis for dismissal,” Rosenthal wrote in an order Thursday.
The lawsuit’s dismissal comes nearly five years after civil rights groups sued on behalf of five men who could not afford bail when detained in Harris County or were required to pay tens of thousands of dollars to ensure their release.
The Texas Civil Rights Project, Civil Rights Corps and Susman & Godfrey LLP had called Harris County’s “wealth-based” system of felony pretrial detention unconstitutional.
The groups accused the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which operates the county jail, of requiring defendants to pay for their release without a judge or magistrate determining whether they could afford it or if their detention served a government interest.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs had said in court filings that the practice of requiring money to be released from jail had resulted in the “systemic detention of those arrestees who are too poor to pay.”
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately reply to requests for comment on the ruling, and the county attorney could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Despite her dismissal of the suit, Rosenthal said it was “puzzling” that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruled Daves v. Dallas County was moot because of Senate Bill 6, a state law passed in 2021 that created statewide requirements for bail practices. Rosenthal cited evidence of ongoing constitutional violations by Harris County, where about 6,200 people are currently held on pretrial felony charges.
‘A real travesty’
Filed in 2018, Daves v. Dallas County challenged Dallas’ bail practices on grounds similar to Russell, arguing that the county was incarcerating criminal defendants before trial based solely on whether they could afford to post bond. That practice was unconstitutional, the plaintiffs maintained.
In March, however, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case had been rendered irrelevant by SB 6. The bill made several changes to the state’s bail procedures, including a requirement that magistrates and judges review a defendant’s criminal history.
Those new requirements supplanted the system challenged in Daves, the court ruled, making the plaintiffs’ claims a non-issue. A lower court handling the case also determined that federal judges shouldn’t overrule the Texas Legislature’s new law.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in Russell had argued last year that the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning didn’t apply in the Harris County case because they could show ongoing constitutional violations that weren’t fixed by SB 6. But Rosenthal ruled on Thursday that she was bound by the higher court’s decision in an “identical” case despite reservations about those same violations.
Rosenthal wrote that even after the passage of the state law, the plaintiffs provided proof of many violations. Some examples:
- Those arrested in Harris County “who are obviously too poor” to pay bail are still required to do so “without any finding that their detention is necessary.”
- Many are “stuck in jail” without an opportunity for an on-the-record bail hearing, “and are sometimes not brought to court at all until they plead guilty.”
- Thousands of people are still detained when their case is resolved every year “solely because they cannot pay the secured bail amounts required for release.”
“The evidence of ongoing constitutional violations is inconsistent with a finding of mootness,” Rosenthal wrote.
Dustin Rynders, the head of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s Criminal Injustice Program and a lawyer on the case, described Rosenthal’s ruling as “heartbreaking.”
“There’s this decision that despite kind of horrific facts, and unconstitutional conduct, that we don’t have a path forward. And that’s a real travesty,” Rynders said. “Despite the legal challenges that came up in the case, the reality remains that it’s deeply immoral for some people to be in jail only because they don’t have the money to be released.”
Rynders said that the plaintiffs’ legal team would be discussing next steps.
The dismissal of the case comes after a 2016 lawsuit that claimed Harris County’s misdemeanor bail practices were unconstitutional. A settlement was reached in 2019, and a subsequent consent decree – approved by Rosenthal – requires the county to release most people charged with misdemeanors on a personal bond without seeing a judge. A personal bond requires no cash, so long as a defendant promises to show up at their next court date.
The settlement also established monitors who submit semi-annual reports to Rosenthal detailing whether the county is complying with the consent decree. In their most recent report, the monitors wrote that the changes “have saved Harris County and residents many millions of dollars, improved the lives of tens of thousands of persons” and led to “no increase in new offenses by persons arrested for misdemeanors.”