Jeffrey Pendleton, a homeless man who won several legal battles over the criminalization of the poor, died in a New Hampshire jail on Sunday after not being able to afford bail.
The New Hampshire Union Leader reports that Pendleton, 26, was arrested last Wednesday on a marijuana possession charge. His bail had been set at $100 cash.
The cause of Pendleton's death is still unclear. David Dionne, superintendent of the Hillsborough County Department of Corrections, said officers discovered Pendleton unconscious in his cell at Valley Street Jail in Manchester, New Hampshire, and it didn't appear he had been "in any form of distress." An autopsy conducted the day after his death proved inconclusive, and a medical examiner reported that Pendleton's body showed no evidence of physical trauma, natural disease or drug use. Toxicology tests are still forthcoming.
Regardless of how he died, the circumstances surrounding Pendleton's death highlight a justice system stacked against poor defendants -- an issue he knew firsthand and had spent the last few years of his short life fighting.
The 26-year-old knew Valley Street Jail entirely too well. In 2014, he spent more than a month locked up there after police picked him up on a criminal trespassing charge while he was walking through a park. His bail was set at $100 in that case as well, but he was unable to come up with the money that would have secured his release until his next court date.
Pendleton later sued the city of Nashua with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, arguing that police had arrested him in a protected place in violation of the First Amendment. Police said Pendleton had violated a previous verbal “no trespass” order for the area around the Nashua Public Library, but the city eventually dropped the charges and agreed to pay $15,000 to settle Pendleton's civil claim.
Months later, Pendleton got involved in another ACLU lawsuit, suing the town of Hudson for cracking down on peaceful panhandlers by citing restrictions that weren't actually on the books. In the end, Hudson agreed to pay $37,500 to settle Pendleton's civil suit. It's unclear how much of the settlement money Pendleton saw or whether he was able to access it.
He got involved in these cases ... because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling." Gilles Bissonnette, ACLU of New Hampshire
Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, represented Pendleton in both of those cases. He described his former client as a "really sweet" and "kind" person whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty.
"He got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall, but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement," Bissonnette told HuffPost. "He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future."
Bissonnette said he had confidence that authorities would conduct a "thorough investigation" into what happened to Pendleton, who wouldn't have even been behind bars if it weren't for broader problems in the criminal justice system.
In 18 states and Washington, D.C., police wouldn't have had a reason to arrest Pendleton in the first place. New Hampshire is currently moving forward on a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession, but it remains the only state in New England that hasn't passed such a law. In neighboring Vermont, the state legislature is on the verge of going a step further and legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
And though the patchwork of state weed laws makes arrests for simple possession look increasingly outrageous -- regardless of whether those arrests ultimately end in someone's death -- Pendleton's case raises further questions about how authorities use bail to keep poor people behind bars.
Though Pendleton's bail was set relatively low, it's hard to see any reason for setting a cash bail of any amount in a marijuana possession case, especially considering his financial situation.
The Department of Justice touched upon this very issue on Monday, in a letter condemning profit-driven local courts that levy fines and fees without considering an individual's ability to pay, often sucking them deeper into the criminal justice system.
In many municipalities, this has led to disastrous consequences for indigent defendants. In 2014, for example, a Michigan man who couldn't afford to pay fines for two outstanding traffic tickets was instead forced to serve time in jail. Seventeen days into his 30-day sentence, he died from a severe reaction to drug withdrawal.
Bail can function in a similar way, the Justice Department noted on Monday. "Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release," the letter read.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch has taken a particular interest in unfair bail practices and their effects on poor defendants over the past few months.
"When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor,” she said in December. "Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk -- only because they are poor. They don’t have money to get out of jail, and they certainly don’t have money to flee anywhere. Other people who do have the means can avoid the system, setting inequality in place from the beginning."
If Pendleton could have paid to avoid the system, maybe he'd still be alive today.
UPDATE: 3/17 -- On Wednesday, Pendleton's family launched a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money to bring his body home to Arkansas for burial.
"We always knew Jeffery was a gentle soul," wrote April Pendleton, Jeffrey's sister. "He was kind and gracious even when the world around him was not. The circumstances regarding his death has come as a shock to our family. We loved Jeffery with all our hearts. The fact that he was yet another young, black man to die in police custody is heartbreaking."
This article has been updated with autopsy results.