By Traci Chapman
A civil rights lawsuit filed against Canadian County judges came as a surprise to county officials and some attorneys who frequently practice in Canadian County, particularly in light of significant changes made to bond procedures.
The federal suit alleges five of the six Canadian County judges violated civic rights of individuals facing criminal charges through procedures involving the way bond and related hearing for impoverished individuals are handled.
The lawsuit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, lists as plaintiffs the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Oklahoma Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and six individuals facing charges in Canadian County.
That action asserts District Judge Paul Hesse, District Judge Jack McCurdy, Special Judge Barbara Hatfield, Special Judge Charles Gass, and Special Judge Khristan Strubhar assessed bond amounts that kept individuals incarcerated in the county jail while their cases were pending simply based on their inability to post bail.
The lawsuit was filed as a class action, citing the six individuals named as plaintiffs in their individual capacity and “all others similarly situated.”
“Impoverished individuals in Canadian County are routinely jailed because they cannot afford bail,” ACLU attorneys stated 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.”
In conjunction with some law changes that dictated a revision in how crimes were classified for low-level marijuana possession and how cases involving defendants who were veterans would be handled, Judge Hesse in 2018 undertook an extensive review of Canadian County bond schedules.
Hesse wanted to streamline the schedules while making the assessment of bonds in Canadian County more comprehensive, officials said.
It’s a move that’s been applauded by several county officials, including commissioners and Sheriff Chris West.
It was also part of a larger effort undertaken by Hesse, West and District Court Clerk Marie Hirst to lower jail populations and allow non-violent defendants to remain out of jail when at all possible, officials said.
“Judge Hesse combined many of the various crimes together in determining bond amounts, and some of the bond amounts were reduced,” Sheriff West said.
New bond 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.
Beyond the initial filing, court personnel have worked to help those convicted of crimes in Canadian County.
Hirst and her staff have developed payment plans for anyone owing Canadian County fees and costs as the result of a criminal conviction.
Canadian County’s court clerk has been outspoken about her support of individuals she said, “made a mistake but who are trying to turn their lives around.”
In those cases, while individuals have been convicted of a crime – officials said they did not want to incarcerate those people who simply did not have the funds to pay costs at a certain time.
“If they stay in touch with us, if they just talk to us about their situation, we will work with them,” Hirst said earlier this year. “We don’t want to penalize someone who is truly trying to turn things around, and we’re here to help them so they can do just that.”
Citing those reform measures, Judge Hesse questioned allegations presented in the civil rights lawsuit.
“The federal complaint filed (Dec. 10) 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.”
The cases of at least three defendants named in the ACLU/NAACP class action lawsuit have been resolved since the case filing, court documents show.
Janara Rebecca Musgrave of El Reno on Dec. 15 pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts filed Nov. 19 – for drug and paraphernalia possession, knowingly receiving stolen property and lost property larceny, and to a state application to revoke a suspended sentence for her alleged failure to comply with requirements associated with her August 2018 conviction to previous drug charges.
Represented by court-appointed attorney Sammy Duncan, Musgrave appeared before Judge Hesse, pleading guilty to all allegations.
The judge sentenced Musgrave to serve one year in the Canadian County Jail, all suspended except the first 31 days with credit for time served.
Jermaine Bradford of Yukon entered a plea in a case filed against him Nov. 26 in Canadian County District Court.
Accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and driving with a suspended license, Bradford on Dec. 13 entered a no contest plea to the charges – a conviction under Oklahoma law.
Judge Hesse entered a one-year jail sentence, all suspended except 23 days and with credit for time served, in connection with both the misdemeanor and traffic cases filed against Bradford.
Misty Gayle White of Yukon was accused of violating a protective order and obstructing an officer in a case filed by prosecutors Nov. 26.
Also Dec. 13, White appeared by court-appointed attorney Jason Spanich. The state filed a motion to dismiss the case against White without costs, which Judge Hesse approved. White was ordered released that day.
Court documents show all three defendants declined an offer by Judge Hesse – named by them in their lawsuit as a defendant – to have another judge preside over their hearings.