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NYCLU Lawsuit In Dutchess Aims To Effect Bail Reform

Jail cell

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit alleging a Dutchess County man was put behind bars unfairly because he could not afford the cash bail. The man was accused of misdemeanor shoplifting. The NYCLU hopes the suit makes a case for bail reform at the same time Governor Andrew Cuomo is calling for reform.

The lawsuit, filed against Dutchess County Sheriff Adrian Butch Anderson, alleges Christopher Kunkeli spent three months in jail because he could not pay the $5,000 cash bail or $10,000 bond. The suit contends $5,000 is about half of Kunkeli’s annual pay. Kunkeli is accused of stealing a $600 vacuum cleaner from a Target in the Town of Poughkeepsie. Philip Desgranges is NYCLU senior staff attorney who filed the suit.

“So this case, this habeas petition that we filed on his behalf, seeks to challenge the bail practices that are in Dutchess County but are widespread throughout the state of New York, which is a practice where judges do not consider a defendant’s ability to pay bail and do not consider alternatives to unaffordable bail amounts that results in someone’s incarceration before they just simply confine that person in jail,” Degranges says.

Captain John Watterson is with the Dutchess County Sheriff’s office.

“The sheriff’s office wasn’t involved with the arrest or the arraignment of Mr. Kunkeli,” says Watterson. “It appears that this office was named as a respondent simply because Mr. Kunkeli has been housed in the Dutchess County jail since his arraignment.”

Plus, he says:

“At this time is appears that the sheriff’s office has played no role in this matter other than housing Mr. Kunkeli pursuant to a lawful order by a judge.” Watterson says.

Soon after filing suit, Desgranges says Kunkeli took a plea deal. Despite this, Desgranges says the lawsuit still stands and could have broader impact.

“However, we, in our papers, make it clear that this is a widespread practice that not only affects Mr. Kunkeli but affect pre-trial defendants en masse,” says Desgranges. “And, as a result, we’re seeking that the court adjudicate and really address the merits of these arguments and issue a ruling that would provide relief for all pre-trial defendants in the county, and making it clear that judges must consider a person’s inability… their ability to pay bail, and judges must also consider alternatives to that bail amount if that person cannot pay.”

He says alternatives could include unsecured bonds or pre-trial services, such as keeping track of the accused. Desgranges says eight years worth of data the NYCLU obtained after Freedom of Information Law requests show unfairness to people in poverty in the county.

“The NYCLU has FOILed bail practice data from jails throughout the state, and one of those counties that we received data from is Dutchess County,” says Desgranges. “So we not only have evidence of the circumstances and facts in this particular individual’s case, Mr. Kunkeli, but we also have data showing the practices of judges generally in that county of setting bail amounts that result in people’s pre-trial incarceration.”

He says the lawsuit is scheduled to be heard January 19. Governor Cuomo, during his State of the State address, called for eliminating cash bail for low-level offenses.

“We must reform our bail system so that a person is only held if a judge finds either a significant flight risk or a real threat to public safety,” said Cuomo. “If so, they should be held in preventive detention whether they are rich or poor, black or white – but if not, they should be released on their own recognizance whether they are rich or poor, black or white. That is only fair.”

The same day the NYCLU filed suit on behalf of the Dutchess County resident, Cuomo commended the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys for announcing they would no longer seek bail for most non-felony cases.

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