Plaintiff in lawsuit against city dies

Published 4:55 pm Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Clanton woman who filed a lawsuit in January against the city of Clanton alleging fixed bail amounts are unfair to poor people has died.

Christy Dawn Varden, 41, passed away March 5.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the lawsuit after Varden claimed that she was arrested outside of the Walmart in Clanton and placed in jail for minor misdemeanor offenses because she could not immediately pay a $2,000 bond.

Varden claimed she was told she would be kept in jail unless she paid $2,000.

According to the lawsuit, arrestees too poor to afford the bond money, $500 for each misdemeanor charge, must remain in jail until the following Tuesday, when they appear via a video conference from the jail at the city’s only weekly court session.

“Because court is held only once per week, an arrestee too poor to buy out of jail could spend more than six days in jail prior to a first court appearance,” the lawsuit states.

Attorneys representing Varden filed a motion Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division, stating the city of Clanton’s lawyers instructed the Clanton Police Department to not give Varden’s counsel the names of new arrestees.

“In the past, the Clanton Police Department took the position that arrest reports and the names of arrestees were public information and readily provided them to counsel for the plaintiffs and the public at large,” the motion states. “In addition to denying indigent arrestees access to pro bono lawyers who seek to help them—a fact disturbing enough in itself—the city is now obstructing lawful methods of curing the purported defect that the city itself relies on.”

Varden’s counsel requested an order from the court directing the city to provide them the names of new city arrestees as “soon as practicable after arrest” and on any occasion the plaintiffs request information during normal business hours.

“This discovery will also help to ensure that there are no further victims of these practices as the city begins to implement the relief requested by the plaintiffs,” the motion stated. “The plaintiffs have no objection to the redaction of sensitive personal information from arrest reports.”

The city filed a response to the motion on Tuesday stating that regardless of how the city of Clanton previously treated arrest records, the documents are not public record, citing Alabama Code 12-21-3.1.

“The city is under no obligation to provide the plaintiff’s counsel with those records,” according to the city’s response.

The response also questions how Varden’s counsel can request discovery in a lawsuit without a plaintiff in the case.

“In light of Ms. Varden’s recent death, her counsel are essentially requesting discovery in a lawsuit without a plaintiff from the defendant so that they can attempt to solicit a client to bring before the court in order that it might obtain jurisdiction,” the response states.

The city is also contesting that a case or controversy exists now that Varden has died.

“The case before this court, has no plaintiff,” the response said. “Varden’s attorney-client relationship with her counsel terminated upon her death.” Varden was originally arrested Jan. 13 outside of the Clanton Walmart and charged with shoplifting, failure to obey a police officer, resisting arrest and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Varden was told she would be released from jail if she paid a $500 bond for each of her charges but was unable to make the payments because the mother of two children was “indigent” with no assets and was not employed, the lawsuit stated.

In February, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, agreeing to help provide the court a framework to assess Varden’s claim of an unlawful bail scheme.

“Accordingly, the United States files this statement of interest, reaffirming this country’s commitment to the principles of fundamental fairness ensuring that ‘the scales of our legal system measure justice, not wealth,’” according to the statement of interest.

The DOJ continued, “if Clanton’s bail system indeed fixes bond amounts based solely on the arrest charge, and does not take individual circumstances into account, the court should find this system to be unconstitutional. Not only are such schemes offensive to equal protection principles, they also constitute bad public policy.”

The DOJ argued that setting fixed dollar values on bail for certain crimes is unfair to poor people who may not be able to pay, resulting in those individuals remaining in jail.

Essentially, individuals committing similar crimes who have money for bail are free to leave, but those who are unable to afford the bail must stay in jail.

In 1966, the Bail Reform Act was formed to “revise the practices relating to bail to assure that all persons, regardless of their financial status, shall not needlessly be detained pending their appearance to answer charges to testify, or pending appeal, when detention serves neither the ends of justice nor the public interest.”

“The use of a more dynamic bail scheme, such as that set forth in the federal Bail Reform Act, not only ensures adherence to constitutional principals of due process and equal protection, but constitutes better public policy. Individualized determinations, rather than fixed-sum schemes that unfairly target the poor, are vital to preventing jail overcrowding, avoiding the costs attendant to incarceration and providing equal justice for all,” the DOJ said.