By JEFF AMY
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the constitutional rights of a Mississippi woman jailed 96 days without seeing a judge were violated, saying she can sue the sheriff and county that held her.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled a lower court, reinstating Jessica Jauch's lawsuit against Choctaw County and Sheriff Cloyd Halford. In doing so, the court made clear all Mississippi sheriffs have a duty to get those jailed promptly before a judge.
U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock had initially dismissed the suit, ruling that because Jauch had been indicted by a grand jury on a felony drug charge, she had no right to a quick hearing.
Jauch, now 35, was arrested on traffic charges in 2012 and held after being served with the drug indictment. While in jail, she says she was forced to temporarily sign over her daughter's custody rights to her mother. After finally seeing a judge, she was appointed a public defender and quickly made bail. She was eventually cleared of the drug charge after undercover video didn't show her committing a crime.
Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley, writing for the three-judge panel, was emphatic that what happened to Jauch was "unjust" and "alien to our law."
"Prolonged pretrial detention without the oversight of a judicial officer and the opportunity to assert constitutional rights is ... unfair," Reavley wrote, citing the harm to family relationships and even the threat of losing a job for those long detained. "Heaping these consequences on an accused and blithely waiting months before affording the defendant access to the justice system is patently unfair in a society where guilt is not presumed."
The panel also rejected Halford's claim that as jailer he was just running a "hotel" and that the fault lay with the state court circuit's two judges and district attorney.
"While he attempted to spread the blame to other officials, his actions and decisions are the cause of Jauch's constitutional injury," Reavley wrote. "Either Sheriff Halford is plainly incompetent, or he knowingly violated the law."
Reavley also said it was unfair to hide behind a court calendar that includes only two sessions of court per year in the county. That setup isn't unusual in rural parts of Mississippi, but judges routinely make out-of-term appearances in various counties for urgent matters, or tell sheriffs to bring those jailed to court in a different county.
"Never have criminal defendants arrested between court terms lawfully been committed to a purgatory where these rights and protections are out of reach, the Constitution made to wait," Reavley wrote.
Daniel Griffith, a lawyer for Halford and the county, declined comment, saying he would speak through court filings. He could request a rehearing before the full 5th Circuit or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Victor Fleitas, Jauch's lawyer, also declined comment.
Mississippi enacted new rules of criminal procedure July 1 that advocates hope will prevent poor people from being stuck in jail without a lawyer or bail. Those rules say that, among other things, those arrested before being indicted are supposed to appear before a judge within two business days, and anyone arrested after indictment must be arraigned within 30 days.
Cliff Johnson, a lawyer with the MacArthur Justice Center, said holding sheriffs accountable for getting a jailed person quickly before a judge is helpful. MacArthur and the American Civil Liberties Union recently settled a lawsuit with four Mississippi counties over allegations that officials were jailing people for long stretches without appointing lawyers.
"This type of deprivation of liberty is what you would expect to see in a Third World country," he said. "It is encouraging that the 5th Circuit has made clear that responsibility for presenting incarcerated prisoners to the court rests squarely with Mississippi sheriffs."