Buffin v. State of California: San Francisco County Sheriff Who Implements An Unconstitutional Bail Schedule Must Pay Plaintiff’s Attorney Fees By Morgan Wallace*

*Case Law Ltd. Extern and South Texas College of Law student

On October 30th, 2015, Riana Buffin and Crystal Patterson filed a class action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 in the United States District Court against the City & County of San Francisco that enforced the State’s bail schedule on the State’s behalf. Buffin v. California, No. 20-15518, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 1017, 5 (9th Cir. Jan. 13, 2022).

The class claimed that the bail schedule violated their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and equal protection because the pre-set mandatory bail amounts failed to consider detainees’ inability to financially meet the bail amount. Ibid. The bail system in California operates under the California Penal Code which states that if the defendant has not had his first hearing and was not arrested pursuant to an arrest warrant, bail is set by the sheriff at the amount dictated in a uniform countywide schedule of bail. See Cal. Pen. Code § 1268.  The uniform county-wide bail schedule is implemented by the State and requires the Sheriff of each county to determine an arrestee’s bail amount solely by reference to the bail schedule and may release an arrestee only if he pays that amount. Buffin, supra, No. 20-15518 LEXIS at 6. The State does not permit the Sheriff to consider any factor, including the detainee’s ability to pay, when setting the bail amount. Ibid. The court agreed with the class that the bail schedule system violated the Fourteenth Amendment right to liberty, which cannot be deprived by reason of indigence. Id.at 13. The parties agreed to a settlement for which the court approved and issued “an injunction barring the Sheriff from using the State’s bail schedule or any other formula dependent on the arrestee’s ability to pay to set bail in the future.” Ibid.

Additionally, the State argued that the Eleventh Amendment granted them sovereign immunity from being sued by private individuals in federal court. Buffin, supra, No. 20-15518 LEXIS at 16. The District Court accepted this argument which prevented the State from being a party in the suit. Ibid. But the court found that the Sheriff was acting on behalf of the State when he set the plaintiff’s bail amounts because the State required the Sheriff to adhere to the bail schedule. Ibid. The Eleventh Amendment allows Congress to set aside sovereign immunity to grant relief to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. Id. at 17. Congress enacted 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for that very reason which authorizes courts to require States to pay for the prevailing party’s attorney fees when their officials are sued on behalf of the state. Ibid. Because the Sheriff was considered to be acting on behalf of the State, the court required that the State pay the prevailing party’s attorney fees, regardless of the State’s immunity. Id. at 18. The State appealed and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the District Court’s decision to require the State to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees on a finding that the Eleventh Amendment does not grant the State immunity from awarding attorney fees to plaintiffs that prevail under a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action. Id. at 16. This ruling held the State partially accountable in the only way they could, by requiring them to pay the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

The decision on the constitutionality of the bail schedule marks a significant trend in the law towards a more equal and fair judicial process by requiring that the State set bail amounts within an individual arrestee’s financial means. This advances equal due process under the law by no longer punishing those who cannot afford a $150,000 bail amount and rewarding those who can. The reason for allowing a detainee the option to post bail in the first place is because law enforcement believes the person can be released back to the public. So, it is inherently unfair for the State to require a pre-set bail amount that each detainee must meet to be released, without consideration of their individual financial means because the wealthier detainees will be granted their freedom with their ability to pay while the impoverished detainees remain in jail. Fortunately, in this case the courts ruled on the side of fairness by holding the State as responsible as the law would allow and in re-affirming that the constitutionality applies in a County’s bail setting procedure.