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Federal judge refuses to toss Lancaster County district judge bail lawsuit

  • By Dan Nephin/LNP | LancasterOnline
The Lancaster County Prison

 Gregory J. Scott

The Lancaster County Prison

A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by seven Lancaster County Prison inmates who claim four district judges set cash bail at levels they can’t afford, leading to unconstitutional pretrial incarceration.

The plaintiffs — just one of whom is still in prison awaiting trial — claim they were discriminated against because other wealthier people charged with similar crimes were given bail they could afford, meaning they were released while awaiting trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed the suit in April 2022, saying at the time that the suit was part of an effort to reform bail statewide. The suit was based on data the ACLU said tended to show that district judges in Lancaster County routinely set excessively high bail.

In seeking to get the suit dismissed last June, attorneys for the judges argued in court filings that the contrasting examples the plaintiffs used involved the use of bail bondsmen, so the judges had no way of knowing the financial positions of the people charged in those cases.

The judges’ attorneys also argued that most of the contrasting cases involved different crimes than the plaintiffs were charged with.

In a court filing last August, the plaintiffs responded that the cases were sufficiently similar under the court’s procedural rules.

As for the bail bondsmen issue, the plaintiffs wrote, “Bondsmen do not work for free, and any defendant who could afford to use a bondsman’s services presumably had greater financial means than one who did not.”

On Jan. 22, U.S. District Judge John Gallagher denied the judges’ request to dismiss the suit in a one-sentence order. A trial date has not been scheduled.

The defendants are judges Brian Chudzik, Edward Tobin, Miles Bixler and Andrew LeFever, along with Lancaster County Prison Warden Cheryl Steberger.

Tobin retired last year; the warden is named because the plaintiffs want the prison to stop incarcerating people unless the district judges give defendants a meaningful opportunity to be heard regarding bail.

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages as part of the suit. The ACLU is seeking to have the suit certified as a class-action, meaning other incarcerated people similarly situated could participate.

Four of the plaintiffs have pleaded guilty to at least some of their charges, with sentences ranging from five years of probation in a robbery case to a three- to six-year state prison sentence in an arson case. Two people are still awaiting trial and one has since been released on modified bail.

No court documents could be found for one man, who was charged with public drunkenness and refusing to pay his bar tab. That would indicate the case likely was cleared under Pennsylvania’s clean slate law. The 2018 law requires automatic sealing from the public view of eligible low-level, nonviolent crimes.

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