a managing partner, Susman Godfrey, Houston
In Harris County, as of this June, no money is longer required up front for release of any misdemeanor arrestee who is indigent and who is not subject some other hold, such as an immigration-related one.
Thank Neal Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, for that change. In April, Manne won for his clients a monumental ruling from a Houston federal judge that led to the release thousands of people jailed for minor offenses who are stuck behind bars for no other reason than they are poor.
U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal found that the bail system used in Harris County violated the due process and equal protection rights of indigent people arrested for minor offenses. Her decision emphasized that Texas’ largest county detained 40 percent of people who were arrested for misdemeanor offenses such as driving without a license and that poor people are often jailed for days and weeks at a time because they can’t pay for a bond to secure their appearance in court.
Rosenthal issued an order in the case, O’Donnell v. Harris County, barring Harris County from detaining misdemeanor defendants who are eligible from release from jail but are unable to do so because they can’t afford bail.
Following her April ruling, Harris County has tried to fight it but has not succeeded so far. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals denied in early June its motion for a stay pending appeal. Harris County then also failed to get a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the County’s merit-based challenge is still pending, plenty of respectable voices have sided with Manne’s clients. Among the amicus briefs filed in favor of his clients are ones from: The American Bar Association, more than five dozen former and current federal and state prosecutors, a group representing law enforcement and correction officials, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies and many more. Even one of the Harris County District Judges whom Manne’s clients initially named as a defendant “now says we were right,” Manne noted.
Manne’s victory came after an eight-day trial in March, which included nearly 300 written exhibits, 2,300 video recordings of bail-setting hearings conducted in Harris County and 13 witnesses, including four experts.
Manne’s pro bono representation of the plaintiffs class will likely make a significant impression on county officials nationwide since Harris County operates the third largest jail in the United States and Manne’s case represents the first time issues about holding indigent misdemeanor arrestees because they can’t pay bond have been presented at a trial.
“The judge’s ruling is obviously a landmark decision. It’s 193 pages and it pretty much dismantles all of the justifications the judges and the county had used,” Manne told Texas Lawyer shortly after Rosenthal’s ruling.
“I think it’s going to change things in Harris County and indirectly change things across the country. In any jurisdiction in any state where this issue is raised, the first thing any judge is going to do is read Judge Rosenthal’s magnificent opinion,” Manne added about his win.