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Declaratory Judgment in Mississippi Case Challenging Indefinite Jail Detention

by Matt Clarke

A Mississippi federal district court has issued an agreed declaratory judgment in a case brought by two defendants who were held for long periods of time in the Scott County Detention Center without an individualized hearing on bail or appointment of counsel. The court declared that, under Mississippi law, the right to counsel attaches at arrest and an attorney should be appointed promptly thereafter for indigent defendants. Failure to timely appoint counsel would implicate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and indigent arrestees are entitled to prompt individualized bail hearings wherein courts must meaningfully consider alternatives other than money bail when determining how best to ensure a defendant’s presence at trial.

Octavious Burks and Joshua Bassett were arrested for felony offenses and held in the jail without being indicted or given counsel or affordable bail for lengthy periods – over 10 months and eight months, respectively, at the time they filed a federal civil rights suit.

Burks was arrested for attempted armed robbery, felon in possession of a weapon, disorderly conduct and possession of paraphernalia. The arresting officer took him before Justice Court Judge Bill Freeman for an initial appearance. Based on the recommendation of the arresting officer and without an individualized hearing or consideration of bail bond factors required by state and federal law, Freeman set the bond at $30,000 – an amount Burks could not afford. Thus, it was effectively a denial of bail.

Burks also filed an affidavit of indigence and application for appointment of counsel at the appearance hearing. A month later his application was approved by Senior Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon, who, nonetheless, failed to actually appoint an attorney for Burks. Previously, Burks had been arrested twice for felonies and held at the jail for a total of 34 months without counsel or an affordable bond. He was not tried on those charges.

Bassett was arrested for grand larceny and possession of methamphetamine. At his appearance hearing, Judge Freeman set his bond at $100,000 based solely on the recommendation of the arresting officer without an individualized hearing or consideration of the bail bond factors. His affidavit of indigence and application for appointment of counsel were also approved, but no attorney was actually appointed.

Assisted by lawyers from the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, the ACLU of Mississippi and the MacArthur Justice Center, Burks and Bassett challenged the de facto denial of bail and indigent counsel; the defendants included Scott County, three state judges, the sheriff and the district attorney. The federal district court entered the declaratory judgment on June 27, 2017 with the consent of all parties, ensuring the timely appointment of counsel and meaningful bail hearings.

See: Burks v. Scott County, Mississippi, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:14-cv-00745-HTW-LRA. 


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Related legal case

Burks v. Scott County, Mississippi