Federal lawsuit challenges Georgia law that limits many people or groups to posting 3 bonds a year

FILE - The Richard B. Russell Federal Building stands, July 21, 2012, in Atlanta. A new federal lawsuit challenges a Georgia law that expands cash bail and restricts organizations that help people pay bail so they can be released while their criminal cases are pending. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart, File)

A new federal lawsuit challenges a Georgia law that expands cash bail and restricts organizations that help people pay bail so they can be released while their criminal cases are pending.

Senate Bill 63, which was signed into law last month by Gov. Brian Kemp and which takes effect July 1, includes a section that limits people and organizations from posting more than three cash bonds in a year unless they meet requirements for bail bond companies. That means passing background checks, paying fees, holding a business license, securing the local sheriff’s approval and establishing a cash escrow account or other form of collateral.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center filed the lawsuit last week. They represent Barred Business Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit whose activities include facilitating campaigns to pay cash bail, and two people who live in Athens and run a charitable bail fund in association with their church.

The lawsuit argues that the section of the law is unconstitutional and asks the judge to prevent its enforcement. It also asks for a preliminary order to keep the law from being enforced while the legal challenge plays out.

The lawsuit says the law “imposes what are arguably the most severe restrictions on charitable bail funds in the nation" and says the imposition of those restrictions on charitable bail funds is “incredibly burdensome — perhaps insurmountable — and is both irrational and arbitrary.” It asserts that if the law is allowed to take effect, “these restrictions will effectively eliminate charitable bail funds in Georgia.”

Earlier this month, the Bail Project, a national nonprofit that helps thousands of low-income people post bond, announced that it had closed its Atlanta branch because of the new law.

The law “is cruel and costly, forcing people to languish in jail because they can't pay for their release, and prohibiting others from being able to help them become free,” ACLU of Georgia legal director Cory Isaacson said in a news release. “With this law, the State of Georgia makes it illegal for people to exercise their First Amendment rights to help those who are detained simply because they are poor.”

Similar arguments were made by Democrats and other critics of the Republican-backed legislation as it was debated by lawmakers earlier this year.

Supporters of the measure argued that well-meaning organizations should have no issue following the same rules as bail bond companies. The measure comes amid conservative efforts to restrict community bail funds, which were used to post bond for people involved in 2020 protests against racial injustice and, more recently, to free those jailed while protesting a new public safety training center being built near Atlanta.

State prosecutors have noted that some “Stop Cop City” protesters had the Atlanta Solidarity Fund’s phone number written on their bodies, which they allege was evidence that the activists intended to do something that could get them arrested. Three of the bail fund’s leaders were charged with charity fraud last year and are among 61 indicted on racketeering charges.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Kemp and state Attorney General Chris Carr, as well as the Fulton County and Athens-Clarke County solicitors general, the prosecutors whose offices handle lower-level crimes in those counties. Representatives for Kemp, Carr and the Fulton County solicitor general's office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. The Associated Press has also reached out to the Athens-Clarke County solicitor general's office seeking comment.

The new law also requires cash bail for 30 additional crimes, including 18 that are always or often misdemeanors, including failure to appear in court for a traffic citation.