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Politics & Government

Too poor to pay for bail? This Utah class action lawsuit is challenging the system

A photo of two women sitting at a desk and speaking into mics.
Ivana Martinez
/
KUER
Anna Christiansen (left) and Karra Porter (right) present a class action lawsuit on behalf of their clients who they said are currently booked into county jails because they are too poor to afford bail.

Three Utahns are suing two judges for setting bail without inquiring if they could afford it or considering alternatives.

Karra Porter, a Christensen & Jensen attorney, presented the class action lawsuit Monday on their behalf.

“These clients understand that they're not going to get money out of this,” Porter said. “They are trying to make it better for not just themselves, but for other people.”

She said in Utah it's common for a magistrate to determine that an arrestee qualifies for release, but then set bail at an amount they can’t afford. Porter said their clients are examples of that.

Dawn Hepikiya Medina has been in the Iron County jail since she was arrested last week for allegedly shoplifting. Her bail was set at $7,000.

Justin Horton’s bail was set to $5,000 after he was found allegedly cutting catalytic converters from cars. He’s since been booked in the Carbon County jail.

Madelaine Thompson was given a bail amount of $3,000 after being arrested for a fight with her family and is still in the Beaver County jail.

In 2020, state legislators put forward a bill that aimed at moving Utah away from cash bail reform. It aimed to give people who were eligible for release, to be let go under the least restrictive reasonably available condition.

Porter said they were prompted to serve the class action suit after the state Legislature largely rolled back that law.

She said the bail system currently works as “wealth-based”, and detains people who can’t afford to pay and releases people who can.

Porter said too often people who are poor remain in jail or plead guilty, creating an inequity in the justice bail system.

“A lot of people are so desperate to get out of jail and they don't have the money that they'll just take a guilty plea when they're not guilty,” she said.

The lawsuit argues arrestees who can’t afford to pay risk losing their jobs and their homes and have a higher chance of being convicted.

Southern Utah judges Ann Marie Mciff Allen and Jeremiah Humes were listed as the defendants in the lawsuit. They are being sued for declaratory relief only.

Porter said they’re ready to take further legal action, if judges don’t start following the procedures they outlined in their lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Utah courts said the judges weren’t able to comment on pending litigation.

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