ACKERMAN, Miss. - Pulled over for traffic violations, Jessica Jauch was held for 96 days in a Mississippi jail without seeing a judge, getting a lawyer or having a chance to make bail. She was charged with a felony based on a secretly recorded video that prosecutors finally acknowledged showed her committing no crime.
Only when she finally got a hearing and a lawyer, who persuaded prosecutors to watch the video, did the case fall apart.
Then, the 34-year-old mother sued, alleging violations of her rights to bail, legal representation, a speedy trial and liberty.
But a federal judge dismissed her case against Choctaw County and Sheriff Cloyd Halford last month, ruling that because she had been indicted by a grand jury on the felony drug charge, none of her constitutional and legal rights were violated.
The outcome has flummoxed civil liberties advocates who have been waging legal battles to reform Mississippi’s criminal justice system, which provides almost no state funding for public defenders.
“I can’t think of a situation where denying someone an appearance before a judge for 96 days after arrest passes constitutional muster,” said attorney Cliff Johnson, who has sued Mississippi localities over pretrial detention and high bails for indigent defendants.
Similar lawsuits have been filed across the country. The American Civil Liberties Union is working state by state to force increased funding for public defenders, particularly in places where court-appointed lawyers depend on stingy local governments and court fees to get paid.
“I think each state suffers from the symptoms we see in Mississippi,” said Brandon Buskey, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “This state just seems to have all of them at the same time.”
Pulled over for traffic offenses on April 26, 2012, Jauch was held thereafter because prosecutors relied on the word of an informant who said Jauch sold her eight Xanax pills for $40 in February 2011, according to court papers.
In fact, a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics video showed Jauch asking to borrow the $40. But Jauch’s lawyer in her federal suit, Victor Fleitas, said no one knew that because investigators and prosecutors apparently never watched the video before persuading the grand jury to charge her with selling a controlled substance. And she wasn’t arraigned until the next court term in Choctaw County, three months later.
Jauch posted $15,000 bail and was released Aug. 6 after she finally got a lawyer. Once the assistant district attorney watched the video, he immediately agreed to drop the charges, Public Defender Hays Burchfield wrote.
Two local assistant district attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. District Attorney Doug Evans did not return calls and e-mails. Fleitas also declined comment, and Jauch didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Even the county and its sheriff told the federal judge that “Jauch states a plausible case for multiple constitutional deficiencies,” but their motion blamed circuit judges and the district attorney.
“It is the court’s obligation to afford her an opportunity before the judge,” Halford told The Associated Press after the case was dismissed. “In layman’s terms, I can’t call the court and talk to the judge and tell them I’ve got somebody and you need to arraign them.”
U.S. District Judge Sharion Aycock, however, ruled that people in Jauch’s situation aren’t required to get a court hearing within 48 hours, and that her right to a lawyer was satisfied by the appearance of a public defender at her arraignment, 96 days after her arrest.
“Put simply, the plaintiff was arrested and held on a valid felony grand jury indictment that established the existence of probable cause,” Aycock wrote. “Therefore, the Fourth Amendment is not implicated here.”
Other federal judges also have considered constitutional challenges to Mississippi’s justice system, with mixed results.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves told Lauderdale County officials in July to do more to ensure inmates get representation and speedy trials. In June, Reeves blasted judges statewide for long detentions, even as he reluctantly ruled out damages for a man held 23 months in jail before his charges were dismissed in Hinds County.
Still pending before U.S. District Judge Henry T. Wingate is a lawsuit by the ACLU and the MacArthur Justice Center accusing Scott County of jailing two inmates illegally without lawyers or grand jury hearings.
“There is no uniform practice in Mississippi that I can identify in terms of getting people in front of a judge in a timely manner, where counsel is identified and appointed, where bail determinations are made on an individualized basis,” said Johnson, a MacArthur Center lawyer. “We’re a mess right now in Mississippi when it comes to pretrial process in the justice system.”
The ACLU also has sued in California, Idaho, Louisiana, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Utah, following lawsuits elsewhere. No one has sued yet in Mississippi over the state’s public defender system but a task force there is studying the issue.
State Public Defender Andre de Gruy’s office only handles death penalty cases, appeals and training. But he believes Mississippi law already requires the swift appointment of a public defender for people facing charges that could result in prison. In practice, though, local public defenders typically must wait for a judge to appoint them to a case.
“It’s because we have this fractured system where no one ever has to take responsibility,” de Gruy said.
Mississippi is considering new rules of criminal procedure; one says people in Jauch’s situation “shall be taken without unnecessary delay before a judge.” But many of the circuit courts in rural Mississippi sit only twice a year.
“If you look around these counties, people are staying in jail a long time before they see a judge,” Burchfield said.