Jury awards $250,000 to Choctaw County woman jailed without seeing a judge


A Mississippi jury awarded $250,000 in damages Tuesday to a woman jailed 96 days without seeing a judge, a case spotlighting how Mississippi still struggles to provide access to lawyers or bail to people jailed before trial.

The verdict included $200,000 in damages against Choctaw County Sheriff Cloyd Halford and $50,000 against the county. It was handed down Tuesday after a two-day trial in federal court in Aberdeen. The jury was only determining how much Jauch was owed, after U.S. District Court Judge Sharion Aycock earlier ruled that the county and Halford were liable.

Jessica Jauch was originally arrested on traffic charges in 2012 and held in Choctaw County after being served with a drug indictment. While in jail, she was forced to temporarily sign over her daughter’s custody rights to her mother. After finally seeing a judge, she was appointed a public defender and quickly made bail. Eventually, she was cleared of the drug charge after undercover video didn’t show her committing any crime.

Daniel Griffith, a lawyer who represented Choctaw County in the trial, said Jauch testified that other women who were arrested would bond out quickly. Jauch’s own lawyer, Israel Fleitas, declined comment. Griffith said Halford and Jauch shook hands while jurors were deliberating Tuesday.

“I can tell you the sheriff is a good man,” Griffith said.

Griffith said the county government’s damages will be paid by insurance. He wasn’t sure if Halford is insured or if he will have to pay his share of the money personally. Jurors awarded the $250,000 as compensatory damages, rejecting additional money for punitive damages.

Halford had argued that he didn’t have to take Jauch before a judge until court met because she’d already been indicted on a felony drug charge, thus establishing probable cause for her detention. The problem was that in Choctaw County, like many rural Mississippi counties, circuit court only meets twice a year, and the next meeting was months away.

The county and Halford also argued the illegal detention was the fault of failures by state court judges. It’s unlikely Jauch would have ever collected money from judges because they’re generally immune from lawsuits.

Aycock originally agreed with the county, dismissing Jauch’s case in 2016. But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was sharply critical of Aycock’s ruling, reinstating Jauch’s case in 2017 and calling her detention “unjust and unfair” and “alien to our law.” The full 5th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear further appeals by the county.

Mississippi has continuing issues with people being arrested before trial and held for months or years with little access to a lawyer or bail. Since Jauch was arrested, the state Supreme Court has enacted new rules of criminal procedure last year that are showing some progress in keeping poor people from being stuck in jail without a lawyer or bail. Those rules say that, among other things, those arrested before being indicted are supposed to appear before a judge within two business days, and anyone arrested after indictment must be arraigned within 30 days.

Griffith, who represents a number of local governments, said those rules are making a difference, along with the publicity surrounding Jauch’s case and others in which governments have been sued for jailing people.

“Nobody wants to be sitting where the sheriff was sitting,” Griffith said.

He said Choctaw County jailers are now sending a list of inmates who need a court appearance to a judge every day. Ultimately, though, Griffith said Mississippi needs a statewide system of public defenders, instead of the part-time defenders who are assigned in most counties. Lawmakers failed to act this year on such a proposal put forward by a task force. (AP)

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