By Traci Chapman
Five Canadian County judges were named this week in a federal class action lawsuit alleging civil rights violations.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Oklahoma Conference of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and six individuals allegedly facing criminal charges in Canadian County this week filed the complaint against Canadian County District Court and five of its six judges.
The lawsuit, filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, asserted District Judges Paul Hesse and Jack McCurdy and Special Judges Barbara Hatfield, Charles Gass and Khristan Strubhar violated the civil rights of six individuals facing charges in Canadian County.
In the suit, plaintiffs allege the Canadian County judges assessed bond amounts that kept individuals incarcerated in the county jail while their cases were pending simply based on their inability to post bail.
“Impoverished individuals in Canadian County are routinely jailed because they cannot afford bail,” ACLU attorneys wrote in their class action complaint.
“This unconstitutional discrimination against indigent arrestees is the result of the Canadian County District Court’s policy and practice of imposing unaffordable bail without making any inquiry into an arrestee’s ability to pay, based solely on amounts set forth in a published bail schedule.”
The five judges handle the bulk of the county’s criminal cases; Associate Judge Bob Hughey, who was not named in the suit, primarily deals with juvenile-related matters.
Judge Hesse released a statement after ACLU attorneys held a Wednesday news conference announcing their Tuesday filing of the federal lawsuit.
Citing reform measures cited by county officials in applauding prisoner jail count drops, the district judge questioned allegations presented in the complaint.
“The federal complaint filed (Tuesday) by the NAACP and others criminally charged as defendants in Canadian County does not fully and accurately describe the bail procedures that currently exists in Canadian County – also, many of their factual assertions are patently false,” Hesse said.
“A review by the federal court of the bail procedures in Canadian County is welcomed.”
This week’s lawsuit comes in the wake of a partnership praised by county officials for lowering county prison populations.
That partnership – among Judge Hesse, Court Clerk Marie Hirst and Sheriff Chris West – led to a drop in county prisoner populations, an effort put into motion in 2018, when Hesse instituted a new bond schedule.
That move, West said in January, effectively lowered bond amounts assessed in connection with many charges filed against Canadian County defendants, West said in January.
“It combined many of the various crimes together in determining bond amounts, and some of the bond amounts were reduced,” the sheriff said.
New schedules also took into account a variety of factors not considered in the past – things like a defendant’s ties to the county, which could lower bail amounts for low level misdemeanor crimes and allow some individuals facing those kinds of cases to bond out of jail without having to post money, but rather by pledging to appear, West said.