Jessica Jauch was arrested in 2012, after she was pulled over for alleged traffic violations.
The Mississippi woman sat in jail for the next three months, indicted in connection with a drug crime she swore she didn’t commit, as she waited for a hearing and to be assigned an attorney.
For 96 days, Jauch was held without bail — in a case that was eventually dismissed.
Civil rights experts say the circumstances of Jauch’s arrest and jailing, which are now the subject of a federal lawsuit, are not at all uncommon. Rather, they are representative of a bigger problem of a constitutional rights violation in the criminal justice system. Those accused of a crime, including the ones who may be innocent, are held in jail for extended periods of time without a hearing and access to an attorney. The poorest take the hardest hit, as they are often held on bail they can’t afford.
Jauch’s case, however, “is a very unique strand of the problem,” said Brandon Buskey of the American Civil Liberties Union. He said the Rankin County, Miss., woman was caught in a judicial “black hole,” in which no one, it seems, is responsible for her long detention on a bogus charge; county and state officials have so far pointed fingers at each other.
Most recently, a federal judge dismissed Jauch’s civil rights lawsuit against county officials, saying no rights were violated.
Her attorney, Victor Fleitas, declined to comment. He said he advised his client to also avoid speaking publicly about her case.
After she was arrested on April 26, 2012, Jauch was told she had been indicted by a grand jury and had an outstanding felony warrant for selling a controlled substance. The alleged crime occurred about a year earlier, when Jauch was caught on video selling eight pain pills to a police informant in Choctaw County, court records say.
Jauch maintained her innocence and inquired to jail officials when she could go in front of a judge, according to the federal lawsuit.
But she was told she had to wait, the lawsuit says. In Mississippi, district judges go from county to county throughout the year to hear cases. When Jauch was arrested, the circuit court in Choctaw County was not in session and wouldn’t be for another three months.
Jauch pleaded not guilty when she was finally arraigned on July 31, 2012 — 96 days after she was arrested. Her bail was set at $15,000, and she was appointed a public defender. She was released a week later after posting bail.
On Aug. 20, 2012, she was assigned another attorney, C. Hays Burchfield, because of conflicts with the first one. Burchfield then filed a discovery motion to obtain and view the video, which showed Jauch borrowing $40 from the informant, not selling narcotics, Burchfield told The Washington Post.
After watching the video, Burchfield and Jauch met with the assistant district attorney, who then decided to dismiss the drug charge.
District Attorney Doug Evans said his office reviewed the video before presenting the case to the grand jury and believed it showed a “hand-to-hand transaction.” The informant and investigators also gave a statement.
“The videos aren’t like a movie in Hollywood. The cameras normally only show parts of what’s going on,” Evans told The Post. “In this one, we saw parts of what was going on.”
Evans said there were problems with the informant and he “didn’t have enough confidence in the informant to put them on the stand.” He declined to elaborate further.
In April 2015, Jauch filed a federal lawsuit against Choctaw County and Sheriff Cloyd Halford, alleging violations of her constitutional rights. Attorneys for the county agreed that there were violations and shifted the blame to state officials, specifically, the district attorney’s office and the court.
They argued that the sheriff was merely following a court’s order to detain Jauch.
“The delay in detention complained of was a failure of state officials to perform functions allocated to the state under the substantive law of Mississippi,” the attorneys argued in court records.
Evans, the prosecutor, said that any time someone is arrested, either sheriff’s officials or the jail notifies his office about it, and an arraignment hearing is then scheduled.
In Jauch’s case, Evans said his office was not notified.
Regardless of who is to blame, Jauch was still unjustly caught in a three-month ordeal that could have been resolved within days, had she had a hearing and been appointed an attorney in a timely manner, said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
According to the lawsuit, state law entitles her to a hearing within 30 days of her arrest.
But in a ruling dismissing the case last month, a federal judge found that her rights were not violated. Because she had been indicted by a grand jury, Jauch wasn’t entitled to initial and preliminary court hearings, the ruling states.
Johnson said the ruling overlooked fundamental issues in Jauch’s case and, more broadly, in the criminal process.
“It ignores the right to have counsel appointed at the earliest possible stages,” Johnson said. “It ignores consideration of bail and access to bail. Should this person be released? Is she a flight risk? The presumption is that an arrested person should be released absent a finding that they’re a flight risk.”
Buskey, of the ACLU, agreed, noting that Jauch posted bail and was released shortly after she finally had a court hearing.
“The question is why didn’t that happen three months before?” Buskey said. “Why is it that she has to wait for over three months simply because the circuit court is going to take its sweet time getting back to her case?”
Jauch is appealing the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.
Similar cases can be seen elsewhere.
Johnson, of the MacArthur Justice Center, said his organization has a pending lawsuit in Scott County, Miss., over the same issues.
In New York, for instance, a federal class-action lawsuit over the lengthy detention of a man charged with a misdemeanor marijuana possession is pending. He was jailed for 877 days — 2 1/2 years — before his case was eventually dismissed.