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Judge Says Bail System Is Unconstitutional

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Riana Buffin lost her job at the Oakland Airport because she was in jail.

She was arrested for allegedly stealing some property; that was her problem. But she couldn't post bail because she was poor.

That was a problem with the system. In Buffin v. City and County of San Francisco, a federal judge said the bail system was unconstitutional.

Right to Be Free

Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said Buffin, who sat in jail for 46 hours while her family raised bail money, lost her liberty because of her poverty. That violated her fundamental right to be free.

"Plaintiff Buffin's experience evidences the real-world consequences of such a deprivation; she lost her job. She is not alone," Gonzalez wrote in a 41-page decision. "The evidence reveals that individuals can also lose their housing, public benefits, and child custody, and be burdened by significant long-term debt due to a short period of detention."

The judge said there was an alternative to jail for Buffin and others like her. The government should assess their risk to public safety, rather than put them in jail where they can't afford to get out.

"The bail schedule, by contrast, is arbitrary in that it sets amounts without regard to any objective measurement and thus bears no relation to the government's interests in enhancing public safety and ensuring court appearance," she wrote. "It merely provides a 'Get Out of Jail' card for anyone with sufficient means to afford it."

"Get Out of Jail Card"

Last year, California passed a law to end cash bail in the state. The law is set to go into effect in October.

There is opposition, including a proposed ballot initiative, but more courts have been ruling against cash bail. Even the Department of Justice said pre-trial bail was unconstitutional because poor people couldn't afford it and stayed in jail while legally innocent.

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