A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court claims Connecticut’s bail system is unconstitutional because it treats minorities differently than non-minorities and deprives indigent individuals of their rights.Roberto Hernandez, who is Hispanic and indigent, claims he was jailed for one year on a $100,000 bond and then the day before his trial started the state dropped the first degree robbery charges.
The U.S. and state constitutions forbid the courts from using high bail to punish defendants by detaining them before trial. Hernandez’s attorney, A. Paul Spinella, claims in the lawsuit that the state knew or had reason to know his client had nothing to do with the crime for which he was charged. The lawsuit claims Hernandez moved twice to have his bail reduced on the grounds of “unreasonableness,” but both motions were denied. He seeks declaratory judgment, an injunction, and punitive damages from the state Court Support Services Division and the Hartford Police involved in the arrest. According to the lawsuit this is his story: Hernandez said his girlfriend witnessed the robbery at the McDonald’s on Washington Street in Hartford on Jan. 26, 2005. On Jan. 27 she told police that she could not identify the robber. On Jan. 28 she had an argument with Hernandez and he dumped her. She then told McDonald’s and the police that he was the robber, he said, and police arrested him and held him for a year, based solely on the testimony of the ex-girlfriend. He claims the Hartford Police lied about the evidence they claimed to have, while other evidence they gathered clearly showed he was not the robber. The state’s bail system came under scrutiny in the early 1990s following a Hartford Courant report that pointed out the disparity in the bail amounts amongst minorities. A 1991 Hartford Courant study of 67,000 criminal cases found “judges set bails for black and Hispanic men in 1991 that were 62 percent to 72 percent higher than those for white men.” “Large racial inequities remained even when the defendants were charged with the same kind of serious crime and had no previous criminal record or pending cases,” the study concluded. In 1992 the judicial branch commissioned its own study of the system that concluded about 56 percent of the Hispanics, 50 percent of blacks, and 27 percent of whites were incarcerated for some amount of time before trial. The study said confidentiality rules made it impossible to examine what other factors—such as income, education or language—would explain why proportionately more minorities were in prison before going to trial. Most recently in 2004, Program Review Committee Analyst Rene LaMark Muir, said higher bail has been affecting all defendants across racial lines. She said she has determined that the severity and type of criminal charge was the best predictor of the amount of bail set on a defendant.“Race is not a significant factor,” she concluded.It’s unknown whether the legislature will address this issue this year. In the past its been unsuccessful at passing legislation to correct the problems in the bail bond system.