Confronted with a lawsuit by the ACLU and the Stanford Law School Criminal Defense Clinic, Santa Clara County Superior Court has changed a policy that amounted to a system of wealth-based detention. Until very recently, anyone who wanted to voluntarily appear in court to address an outstanding arrest warrant—but couldn’t afford bail—had to go to jail first. Yet any person who did have money could simply post bail, secure a court date, and avoid incarceration altogether.
Santa Clara Superior Court recently announced, however, that it would start allowing people who receive notice of an outstanding arrest warrant to make an appointment to come to court for an arraignment—regardless of that person’s ability to pay.
“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.”
Santa Clara’s previous policy subjected people to unnecessary detention, causing them, their families, and their communities hardship and trauma. It was also a waste of taxpayer dollars given that many of those locked up were released on their own recognizance once finally given their day in court.
The new policy allows a defendant with an active arrest warrant to schedule an initial court appearance through their attorney regardless of their financial means. Someone who can’t afford bail must still appear at the jail for an informal booking. However they won’t be taken into custody. Once in court, a judge makes an individualized determination about whether that person should remain out of custody, and if so, on what conditions.
“This process means that individuals won’t be stripped of their freedom until their initial court appearance just because they’re poor,” said Carlie Ware Horne, Clinical Supervising Attorney with the Stanford Law School Criminal Defense Clinic. “It helps people avoid the devastating collateral consequences of being jailed for even a few days while awaiting a court date.”
The about-face comes on the heels of our lawsuit filed last July, challenging the Court’s refusal to allow people to voluntarily appear in court without first paying money bail or surrendering to jail custody. The complaint was filed on behalf of Nikolaus Jackson O’Neill Rogge and Silicon Valley De-Bug, a non-profit organization.
O’Neill Rogge discovered that he had an outstanding warrant for an alleged non-violent offense when a job-training program ran a background check on his application. He immediately contacted the court clerk’s office to request a court date. But he was told that since he couldn’t afford bail, he had to surrender to jail. O’Neill Rogge spent three days locked up, only for the judge to release him on his own recognizance, without any requirement to post bail.
"The decision to stop jailing people who want to come to court but can't afford bail is a step in the right direction," said Raj Jayadev, co-founder of Silicon Valley De-Bug. "Many wealth-based inequities still exist in the criminal legal system, and our community will continue to push to put an end to a punishing pretrial system that overincarcerates the poor and people of color."