Atlanta Municipal Court Atlanta Municipal Court building (Photo: John Disney/ ALM)

Sean Ramsey was arrested Sept. 19 for standing on a public sidewalk holding a sign that said, “homeless please help.”

Seventy-two days later, Ramsey remained in jail because he didn’t have $200 to pay his bond. There had been no judicial hearing. He was never given an opportunity to confer with or even ask for a lawyer to help him to resolve the charge.

On Wednesday, attorneys with Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights stepped in, filing an emergency motion demanding his immediate release from the Atlanta City Detention Center. “We have received a number of complaints about people being lost in the jail after being bound over on misdemeanor charges from the city court,” said center attorney Sarah Geraghty. A staff member researching those complaints stumbled on Ramsey’ case, she said. Late Wednesday, after the emergency petition was filed, the Fulton County Solicitor’s Office ordered Ramsey’s release.

Geraghty said Ramsey is just one of “a troubling number” of people charged with misdemeanors and city ordinance violations “who are held on tiny bonds and become lost in the jail.” It was, she added, the second time in a week in which a person awaiting adjudication of a misdemeanor charge has been “lost in the county jail without a court date or a lawyer.”

Ramsey, a 48-year-old homeless man, was standing at the corner of Central Avenue and Memorial Drive in downtown Atlanta when police arrested him “without incident” and charged him as a “pedestrian soliciting on a roadway,” according to the emergency petition.

He was taken to the city detention center and should have had a hearing the following day. But, the petition said, he was never taken to court. Instead, an Atlanta Municipal Court judge bound Ramsey’s case over to Fulton County State Court. Several days later, he was transferred from the city detention center to the county jail, where he languished until late Wednesday.

Ramsey’s case, according to Geraghty, “is but one example of the profound dysfunction of Atlanta’s pretrial system.”

“The jailing of a homeless man for two months for holding a sign asking for help is the kind of  thing that we think happens only in other countries,” she said. “But, in fact, indigent people are held in jail every night of the week only because they cannot afford small bail amounts.”

Geraghty called on the city to abolish its cash bail system for misdemeanor and city ordinance violations, saying that it is a “two-tiered system that releases the wealthy and jails only the poor.”

The center has filed a number of lawsuits across Georgia in partnership with the Washington-based Civil Rights Corps, which has filed similar lawsuits across the nation, challenging local policies that release individuals charged with petty misdemeanors and ordinance violations on cash bail but hold them in custody simply because they don’t have the money to pay.

In a nationally watched federal case challenging the practice in Calhoun, Georgia, the American Bar Association and the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of U.S. District Senior Judge Harold Murphy’s determination that the practice is unconstitutional.

Georgetown University Law School’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy has filed friend-of-the-court briefs opposing the practice in both the Calhoun case and in a similar pending case in Harris County, Houston, Texas.

In early November, lawyers with the Southern Center and the Washington-based Civil Rights Corps sent a letter to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed requesting “a dialogue” over what they said were “flagrant” constitutional and civil rights violations stemming from the city court’s bail or jail practices.

Records obtained by center staff documented that at least 890 defendants were incarcerated at the county jail for a collective 9,000 days before their bail was reduced or their petty misdemeanor cases were terminated. Others pleaded guilty just to get out of jail, the center found. “On a regular basis, Atlanta Municipal Court judges fail to take the requisite steps required to issue a valid order of pretrial detention,” the letter said.

Reed spokesman Anne Torres said the administration takes the letter seriously and intends to conduct its own review. “If we find the claims in this letter to be meaningful, we will take decisive measures to address them,” she said.