ATLANTA (AP) — A man was arrested for standing at an Atlanta intersection holding a sign reading "homeless please help" and then was illegally jailed for more than two months because he couldn't afford to pay $200 bail, a legal advocacy group says.
The Southern Center for Human Rights filed a petition Wednesday in Fulton County Superior Court seeking the release of Sean Ramsey. He was released shortly after the petition was filed against Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson, who oversees the jail.
Holding someone because he can't afford to pay a certain amount of money violates the U.S. Constitution, the petition says, adding that he also had not been brought before a judge and was not given access to an attorney.
Sheriff's office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan blamed Ramsey's lengthy detention on a computer software problem that prevented paperwork from getting to the right place. She said in an email Thursday that the office is working to fix it.
Ramsey, 48, was arrested Sept. 19 "without any incident" and was charged with pedestrian soliciting on a roadway, according to a police report included with the filing.
He was taken to the Atlanta city jail and was due to appear in court the next day, but a jail document shows he was not brought before a judge. Next to his name in the document is the notation "unruly." The municipal court set Ramsey's bond at $200 in his absence without inquiring whether he had the means to pay, the petition says.
By saying he could be released if he came up with $200, the municipal court implicitly recognized that he was not a flight risk or a dangerous offender, the petition says. And the court was aware that he was indigent as he was arrested for holding a "handmade cardboard sign" reading "homeless please help," the petition says.
The municipal court judge also transferred his case to Fulton County State Court, and he was moved to the Fulton County jail on Sept. 26. He sat there without a hearing or without being provided an attorney for more than two months.
The Southern Center lawyers filed the petition Wednesday and also sent it to the solicitor's office by email. They received an email back saying Ramsey would be released and his case dismissed, Southern Center attorney Sarah Geraghty said in an email Thursday. She confirmed that he was released late Wednesday night.
"This is but one example of the chronic dysfunction and unfairness of Atlanta's pre-trial system," Geraghty wrote, adding that she's aware of another recent case "lost in the system" in which a man charged with an ordinance violation sat in the county jail for more than 100 days without a hearing or lawyer.
Flanagan, the sheriff's office spokeswoman, said that when Ramsey arrived at the county jail, staff there recognized he hadn't been to court and notified the solicitor's office. That office tried unsuccessfully to send paperwork more than once, she said.
Further research revealed intermittent problems with the software that the county's criminal justice agencies use to communicate. The sheriff's office has contacted the software vendor and is working with the company to resolve the problem, Flanagan said.