By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A Mississippi woman who sat in a county jail for 96 days without being offered bail or a lawyer, on suspicion of a drug crime she swore she never committed, may pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the county and its sheriff, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
Reversing a lower court ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Jessica Jauch was denied "basic procedural due process" by Choctaw County and Sheriff Cloyd Halford in being held so long, ostensibly because the court was not in session.
Jauch's innocence is now undisputed.
"A procedure calling for extended pre-trial detention without any sort of hearing is alien to our law," Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley wrote for a 3-0 panel of the New Orleans-based appeals court.
Danny Griffith, a lawyer for the defendants, and Victor Fleitas, who represents Jauch, declined to comment.
Brandon Buskey, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the decision reflects different levels of justice that people accused of crimes might receive while awaiting their day in court.
"You can't operate two justice systems based on wealth, and someone who could afford an attorney would not have sat in jail for 96 days," he said.
Jauch was taken into custody after police pulled her over on April 26, 2012 and issued several traffic tickets.
She later learned she had been indicted three months earlier over a sale of eight tablets of the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam, better known as Xanax, court papers show.
The case was dismissed in January 2013 after surveillance video showed Jauch merely borrowing $40 from a friend, who was working as a confidential informant.
Jauch sued in April 2015, but her case was dismissed in September 2016 by Chief Judge Sharion Aycock of the federal court in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
Aycock said that because Jauch was indicted by a grand jury, state law did not entitle her to the court hearing she sought.
Reavley, however, said indefinite pre-trial detention without an arraignment or court appearance offended "fundamental principles of justice," potentially imperiling a suspect's job, income and family relationships.
"Heaping these consequences on an accused and blithely waiting months before affording the defendant access to the justice system is patently unfair in a society where guilt is not presumed," he wrote.
Hays Burchfield, who represented Jauch in the drug case, said recent changes in Mississippi law "may help indigent people like Jessica avoid sitting in jail" while awaiting a lawyer.
The case is Jauch v Choctaw County et al, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-60690.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Grant McCool)