How long must one be deprived of his freedom before the deprivation is considered “absolute?” For what time period must a person be away from her job, her family, or her home before the loss of liberty is no longer considered a “mere diminishment of a benefit?” And what is the appropriate amount of time an indigent arrestee must wait to receive the same benefit as someone more affluent? On April 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States denied a petition for a writ of certiorari filed in the case of Maurice Walker v. City of Calhoun, Georgia, a case which would have allowed it to consider these very questions.
In late 2015, Maurice Walker was arrested and charged with being a pedestrian under the influence of alcohol. At the time of the arrest, Mr. Walker had a mental illness which prevented him from working, and he received $530 per month in disability. Although the offense with which he was charged carried no jail time, the city of Calhoun, Georgia had a policy of requiring a cash bail for misdemeanor and traffic offenses. Not uncoincidentally, the cash bail amount equaled the amount of the fine an arrestee would pay if found guilty of the offense plus certain fees. The bail in Mr. Walker’s case totaled $160. Mr. Walker had the bad luck of being arrested during a week leading up to a holiday Monday in a small town with only one Municipal Court judge. Because Mr. Walker could not afford the bail, he was set to remain in jail for thirteen days awaiting a hearing which only occurred on non-holiday Mondays. Instead, Mr. Walker filed suit and was released after six days in jail on an appearance bond, and the City quickly modified their policy to allow for release of indigents after a maximum of forty-eight hours of incarceration.
The district court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of Mr. Walker, which the 11thCircuit vacated finding that the lower court had erred in applying heightened scrutiny to Mr. Walker’s argument. This formed the basis for the petition for certiorari. In his petition, Mr. Walker argued that under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, one could not be subjected to imprisonment solely because one was indigent. One of the judges on the divided 11th Circuit panel had agreed with Mr. Walker; Judge Martin argued that heightened scrutiny should apply because Mr. Walker, and those like him, suffered an absolute deprivation of liberty.