Major Victory Against Sheriff Dart’s Unlawful Detention Policy in Federal Court of Appeals
Yesterday, on July 23, 2020, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Plaintiffs in the Williams v. Dart class action lawsuit filed in February 2018 by Thedford Garber Law on behalf of people being unconstitutionally detained under Sheriff Dart’s “administrative bond review” policy. Pursuant to this policy, which has remained in effect to some extent through the present day, Sheriff Dart detained numerous individuals even after their bonds had been paid or they were otherwise eligible for release in order to conduct additional discretionary reviews of their current charges and backgrounds. In many cases, the Sheriff’s Office then determined that those individuals would not be released onto electronic monitoring as ordered and left them to languish in the jail without informing their attorneys, families, or the Court. This practice resulted in the unlawful detention of predominantly Black individuals for days and weeks, each of whom was only eventually released following pressure from family members, advocates, criminal court judges, and the filing of this lawsuit. In May 2019, the lawsuit was dismissed by the trial court, but Thedford Garber Law has now succeeded in getting the dismissal overturned on appeal.
This is a huge victory for the over 80 individuals illegally detained by Sheriff Dart after their bonds had been paid or they were otherwise cleared for release. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has made clear in this opinion that it is judges who are responsible for making pretrial liberty decisions, not the Sheriff. By substituting his judgement for that of bond court judges, and by refusing to release individuals who were deemed eligible for pretrial release, Sheriff Dart violated the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs.
In the published opinion, three judges on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the class of plaintiffs had viable federal constitutional claims of unlawful seizure (detention) under the Fourth Amendment and Equal Protection claims alleging race-based discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as state law claims for contempt of court. The court’s opinion sends the case back to the district (trial) court for further proceedings. In addition, it expressed significant concern over the Sheriff’s actions, writing, “‘[I]f the Fourth
Amendment is to furnish meaningful protection from unfounded interference with liberty,’ 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.”
In February 2018, Chicago Community Bond Fund worked with Thedford Garber Law to support Taphia Williams, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. After CCBF paid Ms. Williams’ $5,000 bond, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office refused to release her onto electronic monitoring for more than three days, citing Dart’s disagreement with the judge’s bond decision. Earlier that same week, Dart had announced the implementation of unilateral reviews by his office for people whose bond conditions he found unsatisfactory in interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
Sheriff Dart’s detention policy was in direct response to bond reform efforts put in place by Chief Judge Timothy Evans to stop wealth-based incarceration in Cook County. This ruling is a major victory for pretrial freedom, and it helps cement the importance of policy changes in the Cook County criminal courts. It is also incredibly relevant, as the Sheriff has continued to selectively cite this internal “policy” against release onto electronic monitoring. The Court of Appeals decision today sends a clear message that this practice of unlawful detention must stop.
The lawsuit will now return to the federal district court, where the fight against the Sheriff’s unconstitutional policies continues.