Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Court denies bid by St. Louis, judges to toss bail lawsuit 

Jessica Shumaker//March 2, 2021

Court denies bid by St. Louis, judges to toss bail lawsuit 

Jessica Shumaker//March 2, 2021

A recent overhaul in Missouri’s bail rules is not a sufficient basis to throw out a class action lawsuit challenging bail procedures in the city of St. Louis, a federal judge has ruled. 

In a Feb. 17 order, U.S. District Judge Audrey G. Fleissig denied separate motions for judgment on the pleadings filed by the city and judges from the St. Louis City Circuit Court. In a separate order, Fleissig also denied the judges’ motion to decertify a class of plaintiffs in the suit.

The suit’s lead plaintiffs are David Dixon, Jeffrey Rozelle, Aaron Thurman and Richard Robards, who are represented by ArchCity Defenders in St. Louis. In January 2019, they sued the city, its commissioner of corrections and several St. Louis Circuit Court judges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. 

They alleged that St. Louis’ practices amounted to a “system of wealth-based detention” in which people accused of crimes were detained unnecessarily if they were unable to pay their cash bonds.

In March 2019, Fleissig granted a preliminary injunction for the plaintiffs, enjoining the city from enforcing any bail order operating as a de facto order of detention based on an arrested person’s ability to pay. 

Just before the suit was filed, in December 2018, the Missouri Supreme Court announced new bail rules, which were set to take effect in July 2019. 

One rule at issue in the plaintiffs’ case is Missouri Supreme Court Rule 33.01, which clarifies that a court cannot impose cash bail without an individual assessment of an arrested person’s financial circumstances, potential to flee, threat to public safety and consideration of alternative release conditions. 

The new rule also provides people who’ve been arrested with the right to a review hearing on the record within seven days, and it requires the court to make written findings supported by clear and convincing evidence. 

The defendants appealed the preliminary injunction. In February 2020, the 8th U.S. Circuit of Appeals vacated it and remanded the case to Fleissig, citing the new bail rules. 

Fleissig said the plaintiffs have since updated the record with more recent evidence about the city’s bail practices, which they still contend are inadequate. 

The city and judges filed separate motions for judgment on the pleadings. In part, the city argued the plaintiffs’ allegations are moot due to the updated rule.  

Fleissig disagreed, noting that in the earlier order, she held that the rule change did not render the case moot because the central controversy — whether the defendants are actually in practice satisfying the requirements of the rule and due process — remains. 

“On that question, Plaintiffs continue to claim that Defendants’ practices since remand still do not meet constitutional standards, while Defendants insist that their practices are constitutionally adequate,” she said. “Clearly, the controversy is live. Whether the record ultimately supports Plaintiff’s claims is a question for another day.”

The city judges separately argued in their filing that Fleissig should abstain from ruling on a state court matter and that the plaintiffs’ exclusive remedy is a writ of habeas corpus. Fleissig found both arguments unpersuasive. 

A spokesperson for ArchCity Defenders declined to comment on the ruling. City spokesman Jacob Long also declined to comment, saying in an email that the city “does not set bail and does not comment on pending litigation.” 

A spokesman for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, which is representing the judges, did not respond to a message seeking comment. 

The case is Dixon v. City of St. Louis, 4:19-cv-0112. 

Latest Opinion Digests

See all digests

Top stories

See more news