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Indefinite Pre-incident Detention of Indigents by Mississippi Challenged in Class Action Law Suit

A class action challenging the indefinite jailing of persons in a Mississippi’s Scott County Detention Center without indictment or representation by counsel was filed on September 23, 2014. The lead plaintiffs are indigents who have been held up to sixteen months without being indicted or appointed counsel. They seek injunctive relief to cure the unconstitutional policies.

 “The county must set reasonable limits on the amount of time someone can remain in jail without a lawyer and without charges,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Scott County Jail routinely holds people without giving them a lawyer and without formally charging them for months, with no end in sight.”

Each of the lead plaintiffs, Octavious Burks and Joshua Bassett, appeared at an initial appearance and had a bail set above their resources, which resulted in a “denial of bail” for them, the complaint alleges. Burks has endured indefinite jailing on several occasions.

He was held from August 30, 2009 to February 18, 2011, on suspicion of aggravated assault and disturbing the peace. He was not indicted until December 2010. Then, he was jailed from June 18, 2012, to June 7, 2013, for possession of firearm by a felon. He has never been indicted on the allegations and was released on his own recognizance without a hearing by the sheriff. Bassett was arrested on January 3, 2014, for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine. He has not been indicted on these or other charges brought in April and remained in jail when the complaint was filed.

The complaint notes that neither has been appointed counsel despite being found eligible by the trial court. The inaction occurs due to the Eighth Circuit Court District’s policy that provides an “indigent accused of a felony will not be appointed meaningful, continuous counsel until the defendant is indicted,” the complaint alleges. That policy prevents a defendant from having counsel at the initial appearance to argue for release or for reasonable bail. It leaves the defendant without “counsel to advise him on whether to demand a preliminary hearing or to prepare for and conduct a preliminary hearing.”

The Eighth District “further exacerbates the risk of indefinite pre-indictment detention” by only impaneling a grand jury three times a year. “[D]epending on the timing of the arrest, a detained, felony defendant may wait three to five months to learn if he has been indicted,” charges the complaint. “Each time a defendant’s case is either not presented to or passed over by the grand jury potentially adds an additional three to five months of the length of detention.”

Because the District Attorney’s office fails to regularly monitor the progress of law enforcement investigations, delay occurs in presentation of cases to the grand jury, which “contributes significantly to the incidence of indefinite pre-indictment detention.” Such detention may be occurring in more counties, for “Mississippi doesn’t limit how long a prosecutor has to indict someone, even if that someone is wasting away in jail,” says the ACLU.

The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project and the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center. PLN will report developments as they occur.

See: Burks v. Scott County, Mississippi: USDC, SD Mississippi, Case No: 3:14-cv-745-HTW-LRA.

Additional source: Associated Press

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