Lawsuit Challenges Santa Clara Superior Court over Unconstitutional Policy that Forces Poor Defendants to Go to Jail if They Can’t Make Bail

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SAN JOSE—In Santa Clara County, people who want to voluntarily appear in court to address an outstanding arrest warrant must first go to jail if they are too poor to post bail. This system, which is a direct consequence of a local court policy, results in wealth-based detention and unequal access to the courts in violation of the U.S. and California Constitutions.

Today, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Criminal Defense Clinic at Stanford Law School sued Santa Clara County Superior Court over its unfair policy that results in an unequal system of justice. The complaint was filed on behalf of Nikolaus Jackson O’Neill Rogge and Silicon Valley De-Bug, a non-profit organization.

“Equal access to the courts shouldn't depend on your ability to pay,” said Emi Young, a staff attorney with the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California. “That's why we’re suing to stop the Santa Clara Superior Court from running a system that unnecessarily locks poor people up, when they just want to appear in court on the charges against them.”

O’Neill Rogge found out that he had an outstanding arrest warrant for an alleged non-violent offense when a job-training program ran a routine background check on his application. He contacted the clerk of court’s office to request a court date. However, he was told that his only option was to surrender into jail custody because he couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail associated with the warrant. He turned himself into local law enforcement and spent three days locked up, only for the judge to later release him on his own recognizance without having to post a costly bond.

“I had never been arrested before and was scared,” O’Neill Rogge said. “It’s unfair that I had to go to jail just because I couldn’t pay but if I’d had the $10,000, they would have given me a court date and sent me home.” 

Many California courts allow someone charged with a criminal offense to come straight to court to clear up an outstanding arrest warrant. But not Santa Clara, which in early 2022 began refusing to calendar voluntary appearances for those who can’t post bail.

“Even a few days of unnecessary incarceration can cause incredible harm, both for the individual and the broader community,” said Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug. “We’re often contacted by people who learn they have an arrest warrant and want to be proactive about dealing with the charges but fear turning themselves into the jail because they are caretakers, are working, or have other responsibilities that will be put at risk.”

The Court’s policy is not only unfair, it is also counterproductive.

“People like Nikolaus O’Neill Rogge are being forced to go to jail even though a judge might decide they should be released when given information about their charges and individual circumstances,” said Carlie Ware Horne, Clinical Supervising Attorney with the Stanford Law Criminal Defense Clinic. “We are simply asking the Santa Clara Superior Court to bring itself in line with many other counties in California that provide a fair opportunity for people to come to court without first having to post money bail.”

Read the complaint here:

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