Santa Clara County Superior Court changes bail policy

Santa Clara County Superior Court has made a drastic change in its bail practices this week according to the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California

The move comes after the ACLU partnered up with the Stanford Law School Criminal Defense Clinic to sue the county over what it called a "system of wealth-based detention."

Up until recently, anyone who wanted to voluntarily appear in court to address an outstanding warrant had to go to jail if they couldn't afford bail in Santa Clara County. However, the ACLU argued that any person who had the financial means to post bail could do so, secure a court date and avoid being incarcerated at all. 

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The new process allows a defendant with an active arrest warrant to schedule a court appearance through their attorney regardless of their financial means, the ACLU said. Any person who cannot afford bail will need to appear for an "informal booking" but will not be taken into custody right away. Once the defendant's first court day comes, a judge will make an "individualized determination" if that person should remain out of custody and the conditions of that arrangement. 

Though the ACLU looks at this scenario as a victory, some team members of the organization believe it shouldn't have come to this point. 

"It’s unfortunate that it took legal action to compel the court to do the right thing," said Emi Young, a staff attorney with the criminal justice program at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California. "It remains to be seen how the court implements the new policy, and we and our partners will be watching."

The lawsuit brought by the ACLU was filed in July on behalf of Nikolaus Jakson O'Neill Rogge and Silicon Valley De-Bug, which is a non-profit organization. O'Neill Rogge learned he had an outstanding warrant for an alleged non-violent offense after a background check for a new job. 

He then contacted the court clerk's office to request a court date. However, since he was not able to afford bail, he had to surrender to jail. He spent three days behind bars before a judge released him on his own recognizance, without requiring bail to be posted. 

Earlier this week, public defenders across the state of California urged the California Supreme Court to uphold the 2021 bail ruling, known as the Humphrey ruling. The Humphrey ruling outlines "limited circumstances under which a person accused of a crime can be detained pretrial," the San Francisco Public Defender's Office said. 

However, Kowalczyk, a new case recently accepted for review by the California court, could effectively expand the exceptions that had previously been limited by Humprey

"The California Supreme Court should be offended by the Kowalczyk court’s unwarranted expansion of pretrial detention, which thwarts the High Court’s clear directive in Humphrey that setting unaffordable bail is unconstitutional," said Sujung Kim, manager of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Research Unit. "The Supreme Court should overturn Kowalczyk, which emboldens courts across the state to continue disregarding and misinterpreting Humphrey, placing hundreds of thousands of Californians at risk of pretrial detention simply because they are poor. The High Court must set a bright-line rule that folks charged with non-violent misdemeanor crimes should never be jailed pretrial."