WilmerHale, the Civil Rights Corps and Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection produced the following joint news release.
Five currently detained and four formerly detained individuals have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against Prince George's County, various PG County officials, and PG County state judges, alleging that the County’s pretrial detention practices violate their state and federal constitutional rights. Represented by counsel from Civil Rights Corps, WilmerHale, and Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP), the lawsuit seeks a declaration that PG County and its officials violate Plaintiffs’ rights under the United States and Maryland Constitutions by detaining people pretrial without meeting the substantive and procedural standards required for pretrial detention. Plaintiffs also seek a preliminary and permanent injunction requiring PG County to immediately halt its illegal practices, as well as money damages for every day of unconstitutional detention for each member of the Plaintiff class.
“Every night, hundreds of people are jailed awaiting trial in Prince George’s County, Maryland, despite the absence of any legally sufficient order that they be detained,” the class action complaint alleges. “These unlawfully jailed people comprise approximately one-third of the entire population of the Prince George’s County Jail. No court has found that they are too dangerous to be released. Nor has any court found that they would be a flight risk if released. In fact, the opposite is true. A judge has decided that each of these people could safely be released into the community.”
“Nevertheless,” the complaint continues, “each person remains in jail, in violation of their state and federal constitutional rights, because Prince George’s County District and Circuit Court Judges have abdicated their responsibilities and instead referred the decision whether, when, and under what conditions the presumptively innocent person will be released to unaccountable non-judicial county officials. These pretrial referrals often occur even when the judges ostensibly order the person to be released. The county officials . . . make these critical decisions behind closed doors, without a hearing or the participation of the arrested person or the state, and based on the officials’ own criteria unrelated to public safety or flight risk.” These decisions can take weeks or months to reach, “during which time the jailed persons suffer the severe harms attendant to pretrial incarceration, including being cut off from their family, friends, and attorneys; losing their homes and jobs; and lacking adequate physical and mental healthcare.”
The lawsuit details the workings of PG County’s byzantine bail review and pretrial detention processes and how—through undue secrecy, unresponsiveness, delay, and arbitrariness—the County’s practices have persistently violated Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights under the U.S. and Maryland constitutions. Each of the named plaintiffs was authorized or ordered released by a judge, yet remained in jail for weeks or months-–in one case, five months and counting—because of the County’s unlawful practices. Five of the named plaintiffs, including a 16-year-old boy, remain jailed to this day. Every day that the plaintiffs are incarcerated—separated from their families, jobs, homes, medical treatment, and other crucial components of life—inflicts additional harm. All told, thousands of people have been, and many continue to be, detained in violation of their constitutional and legal rights.
“The practices we’re challenging show that even well-intentioned programs can be the source of immense, unnecessary suffering when used improperly. The Constitution requires that pretrial detention be strictly limited, which is simply not the case in PG County. We hope this suit brings about much-needed change,” said ICAP Senior Counsel Seth Wayne.
“Hundreds of people who have been authorized to return to their homes and communities sit in jail every night, for no other reason than because judges and County officials lack the political and moral courage to do their jobs. This gross misconduct has been ongoing for decades, and thousands of mostly Black and Brown people have paid an immeasurable price. We hope this lawsuit will be a much-needed jolt to the system,” said CRC Attorney Ellora Thadaney Israni.
“Thirty-five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that, in the United States, ‘liberty is the norm’ and ‘detention prior to trial is the carefully limited exception.’ In Prince George’s County, however, that limited exception has swallowed the rule, and people convicted of nothing are regularly detained for months on end prior to trial. These unlawful pretrial jailings have catastrophic consequences for our fellow citizens, upending their lives and their livelihoods. Through this lawsuit, we hope to re-establish the norm of liberty in Prince George’s County and limit pre-trial detention to only those very narrow circumstances permitted by the Supreme Court,” said WilmerHale Attorney Matthew T. Martens