Arkansas chief justice invokes Johnny Cash song in bail dissent

The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Objecting to the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that lower-court judges can require defendants to pay their bail in cash, the high court’s chief justice on Thursday cited a musician seldom thought of as a legal scholar: Johnny Cash.

Interim Chief Justice Howard Brill cited Cash’s song “Starkville City Jail” in a dissent, saying it was wrong for the court’s majority to deny a defendant’s objection to a $300,000 cash-only bail in an aggravated assault and domestic battery case.

“After being arrested for trespassing and picking flowers, Johnny Cash spent the night in the Starkville City Jail,” Brill wrote. “His ballad suggests he was not taken before a magistrate or given the opportunity to be released on bail.”

In a 5-2 ruling, the court dismissed Ramon Trujillo’s argument that the lower court erred in requiring cash-only bail. Trujillo’s attorney argued that the state constitution requires defendants be allowed to post a bond rather than be required to pay the bail amount in cash.

“The purpose of bail in Arkansas is to ensure the presence of the defendant, and cash-only does not restrict a defendant’s constitutional rights pending trial,” Justice Karen Baker wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

Brill, who was appointed last year to serve the remainder of the late Chief Justice Jim Hannah’s term, devoted the first page of his dissent to the song by Cash recounting his 1965 public drunkenness arrest in Starkville, Mississippi.

Brill acknowledged cash-only bail may have advantages, but expressed concern it could be used punitively in larger amounts.

“Requiring cash-only for bail strips a person of his constitutional right to provide any sufficient surety for his release,” Brill wrote.

Another justice objecting to the ruling said requiring cash-only bonds would punish poorer defendants.

“This decision will disproportionately impact the poor, as well as those whose wealth is invested and do not have ready at their disposal large sums of cash,” Justice Jo Hart wrote in a separate dissent.