by Phil Telfeyan, Executive Director of Equal Justice Under Law and lead attorney in Buffin v. San Francisco
No person should have to spend even one day in jail solely because he or she is poor. This fundamental axiom of American law is the cornerstone of the movement to end America’s discriminatory money bail system. In the past two years, Equal Justice Under Law has filed 11 lawsuits seeking to end money bail in cities and states across the country. Seven of these suits have led to the end of money bail in those seven cities; our litigation in San Francisco has the potential to end wealth-based detention across all of California.
On Oct. 26, 2015, 19-year-old Riana Buffin was arrested for stealing from a department store. Under San Francisco’s bail schedule, she could have been immediately released if she had paid $30,000. But because she is too poor to pay that amount, she sat in jail for two days until the District Attorney decided not to press charges. Because of those two days in jail — two days a rich person would not have endured — Ms. Buffin lost her job at the Oakland airport, cutting off an essential source of income for her mother and two younger brothers (all three of whom have disabilities). Nobody thought Ms. Buffin was a danger to society. She had never been arrested before and the DA did not even file charges against her.
Ms. Buffin is the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit — Buffin v. San Francisco — seeking to end San Francisco’s wealth-based detention scheme. The city currently runs two systems of pretrial justice: one for the rich and another for the rest of society. The poorer you are, the worse San Francisco’s justice system treats you.
After numerous motions to dismiss, United States District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers declared that our legal challenge could move forward on the merits against Sheriff Vicky Hennessy. On Nov. 1, 2017, the Sheriff’s response came in: she and the City Attorney refused to defend money bail. “This two-tiered system of pretrial justice does not serve the interests of the government or the public, and unfairly discriminates against the poor,” the filing stated. Although the Sherriff will continue to enforce the State’s law, “she is not required to defend it, and she will not.”