By Christopher Zoukis
The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center have joined to file a federal civil rights and anti-racketeering class-action lawsuit which claims a Louisiana district judge, the East Baton Rouge sheriff, and a firm that monitors criminal defendants released on bail while awaiting trial acted together to force defendants to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in unwarranted fees to the pre-trial monitoring firm.
Ayo v. Dunn et al., filed Aug. 8 in the Baton Rouge federal court, details how two East Baton Rouge defendants say they were coerced and exploited by Rehabilitation Home Incarceration (RHI), a local nonprofit, which collects substantial pre-trial monitoring fees from defendants seeking release on bail while awaiting trial.
The lawsuit attempts to show collusion between RHI, a judge who routinely makes assignment to the firm a condition of pre-trial release, and the local sheriff, who refuses to release inmates from the local prison until RHI has been paid, and arrests those who have been released if they fall behind in the hefty payments RHI demands. The lucrative scheme, the lawsuit argues, essentially amounts to holding pre-trial defendants hostage.
Claiming strong political ties between the family that runs RHI and the judge who routinely makes signing up with RHI a condition for being released from pre-trial incarceration, the lawsuit notes RHI supported the judge’s most recent re-election bid — the son of the lead defendant, RHI’s executive director, chaired the campaign committee — and RHI managers and employees were paid for working for Judge Trudy White’s 2014 re-election campaign.
The judge took an unexplained three-month absence from the court and later apologized to her colleagues on the bench for a campaign TV ad titled “Criminals Love Judge Trudy White,” in which a local comedian, dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, handcuffs and sporting a doo-rag on his head, with the judge standing next to him in a courtroom, delivered a rap-style endorsement of her for “fixin’ to send me home” and exhorting viewers “if you want somebody to show you some love, vote for Trudy White.”
The alleged scheme between the judge, sheriff and pre-trial monitoring firm, the lawsuit claims, not only violates the federal Constitution by depriving criminal defendants of liberty without equal protection and due process, it also runs afoul of the federal RICO anti-racketeering law and a similar state law, and even a state unfair trade practices statute. While the exact size of the class for which relief is sought is unknown, Judge White (not included as a defendant) has delivered about 300 pre-trial arrestees to RHI, the suit notes.
Besides seeking the federal court to assert its jurisdiction over the case and designate it as a class action, plaintiffs also seek award of treble damages from the head of RHI to each class member under the RICO statute, plus treble damages from the firm, with a $10,000 minimum, for each class member under the state anti-racketeering law. Damages for constitutional violations are also sought from RHI and the local sheriff, along with damages from the firm for its alleged unfair trade practices, and several other theories, including unjust enrichment and conversion of class members’ property, plus costs and attorney’s fees.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.