A federal judge has ruled that Virginia cannot jail misdemeanor suspects who are unable to raise bond for offenses that do not carry jail sentences.

District Court Judge Albert Bryan Jr., in a ruling issued in Alexandria, held such detention was unconstitutional. "It offends basic notions of fairness to subject a pretrial detainee, clothed with the presumption of innocene, to a greater punishment than he could receive after being found guilty, solely because of inability to pay a money bond," he ruled.

The ruling was disclosed in a letter to a Charlottesville lawyer. Deborah Wyatt, who had asked Bryan to dismiss the case against Richmond Allen of Charlottesville. Allen -- a man Culpeper prosecutor Roger L. Morton said "just got lost in the system" -- was jailed in Culpeper for 14 days last year on a charge of swearing in public after he could not pay $250 bond.

"I'm not sure how frequently this practice is done throughout the state," said Leonard Rubenstein, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which supported Wyatt's appeal. "But it probably does happen more often than people are aware of."

Chan Kendrick, ACLU executive director in Virginia called the decision "long overdue . . . Hopefully, this will be a precedent-setting case in Virginia and other states.

In his ruling, Bryan also allowed Wyatt to intervene in another case involving Jesse Nicholson, who had been held in Culpeper County jail on four occasions on a charge of being drunk in public. On one occasion, Nicholson remained in jail six days because he was unable to pay a $30 bond.

Under Virginia law, individuals may be fined -- but not jailed -- on charges of being drunk in public and swearing in public.