By Bill Quigley
Two Texas mothers, who police said had no criminal record, spent five days in a notorious Louisiana jail over charges they ate two hot dogs, milkshakes and an icee at a convenience store. The women were ordered held on $1,500 dollar bond each despite the fact they had just voluntarily driven over 400 miles from Dallas to show up in court to contest the charges against them.
On January 15, 2016, Ms. Walnetta Reid and Ms. Tristan Ellis, mothers from Dallas, were stopped by a police officer in New Iberia, Louisiana. The police told the women they had been accused of eating two hot dogs and drinking milkshakes and an icee in a gas station convenience store without paying. The police officer handcuffed the two women and placed them in the back of the patrol car.
The women told the police officer they had not taken anything from the store. They pleaded with the officer to look at the store surveillance videotape which would prove their innocence. They told the officer they did go into the store but only to use the store microwave to heat up some soup they had bought at another store and for which they had a receipt.
The officer ran their names through his computer and found out they had no criminal records. He released the women with a summons to appear in New Iberia City Court on March 14, 2016.
Both Reid and Ellis are active in volunteer work in Dallas helping young people. They told a friend who does volunteer work with them, C.J. Bible, they had to return to Louisiana to clear their names.
Reid and Ellis drove the 400 miles to appear in New Iberia City Court on Monday March 14, 2016. Though they could not afford an attorney, they expected to be found innocent once the judge looked at the store videotape. But when their case came up, they were told there was not going to be a trial. Court was only for them to plead not guilty or guilty. They pled not guilty and the court set the trial for May 25.
They thought it was all over for the day until the Prosecutor asked the Judge to set cash bail on them since they had showed up on a summons and were from out of state. Despite that they had voluntarily driven 400 miles one way to appear in court, and they had no criminal record, the judge ordered each women to put up a $1,500 bail, plus $240 in court fees.
They were told to follow a deputy into the back. The deputy then asked them if they were ready to bail out. They said they could not afford $1,740 each for bail. The deputy asked if some of their family could come and put up the money. They explained they had no family around and no way to raise the money. Their cash and valuables were taken from them and they were placed in the Iberia Parish jail.
Iberia Parish Jail is a scary place. Recently six Iberia Parish deputies pled guilty to federal charges in the beating, choking and sexual intimidation of inmates inside the chapel in the jail, the only room where there is not a camera. Other videos have surfaced showing a deputy using attack dogs to repeatedly bite an inmate on the ground with the deputy joining in stomping and kicking the prone inmate. The women were told that unless they bonded out they would stay until their trial on May 25!
As Monday turned into Tuesday, their Dallas friend, C.J. Bible, called several local bond companies but none would write commercial bonds for them since they were from out of state.
Finally, on Friday March 18, Bible started reaching out to TV and newspapers in the area. New Iberia attorney Michael Moity saw the women’s story and decided to help out. He immediately put up his own money to bond the women out of jail and volunteered to defend them for free even without meeting them. Moity told KATC, “Nobody should spend five days in jail over a misdemeanor just because they’re from out of town.” Both women plan to return to New Iberia for their trial and expect to be found innocent of the charges.
Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at email@example.com.