Mike Moity of New Iberia, Louisiana is one of the Lawyers We Love. He runs a small practice in town, taking whatever business comes in the door. When two Dallas women were jailed in his parish on nonsense charges because they couldn’t afford bail, he paid it and agreed to represent them for free.
Mike has a JD from Louisiana State University. He’s been practicing for nearly 20 years. And he has survived, one client at a time.
He’s a smartass, not afraid to give a judge the business, and he’s been duly punished for it. He’s also not afraid to fight the local bar when necessary. He recently helped file an official complaint against the district attorney for malfeasance in office.
He’s a competent lawyer that sometimes takes clients who’ll pay slowly if at all, but he’s not well known for charitable works. Still, when he heard those women from Dallas would be stuck in the local jail for two months pending trial, he couldn’t remain silent.
That jail is one of the worst in the country, the subject of numerous state and local investigations for prisoner abuse, including sexual assault and harassment. Since 2008, more than 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff’s office, and five inmates have died in jail or custody. The Louisiana chapter of the ACLU is among those suing the sheriff’s office over jail conditions. “There does seem to be a pattern of violence perpetuated upon the public in general, whether they are inmates or non-inmates, by the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office,” said Marjorie Esman, the chapter’s executive director.
Mike does criminal defense, so he’s spent some time in the jail. The thought of two women from out of town locked up there for lack of bail was too troubling to ignore.
Here’s the story: Tristen Ellis and Walnetta Reid had traveled from Dallas to New Orleans for a conference lasting several days. On January 15th, they packed lunch for the 500-mile trip back to Dallas and got on the road. Near lunchtime, the women stopped at a gas station in New Iberia and entered the convenience store in search of a microwave to heat their lunch. They left without incident and parked at a retail store nearby to eat, and that’s where a police officer found them.
The officer informed them they’d been accused of stealing two hot dogs, two Icees and a milkshake at the convenience store. He handcuffed them, placed them in the back of his patrol car, and ran their IDs for criminal history. Finding none, he issued a court summons for March and released them.
The women traveled 400 miles back to New Iberia on March 14th for trial. They knew the store’s surveillance would prove them innocent, and they had receipts for the lunch items they’d purchased in New Orleans early on the day they were arrested. Plus, one of them followed a vegan diet and hadn’t gone near a hot dog or milkshake in years. They had no lawyer but were prepared to win the case.
But the judge had other ideas. He told them he accepted their pleas of not guilty but there’d be no trial that day. He set trial for 10 weeks later on May 25th. In a horrendous abuse of power, the prosecutor asked for bail, a cash bond — for misdemeanors! on defendants who’d voluntarily returned to face the charges! What’s worse, the judge granted the prosecutor’s request.
So Tristen Ellis and Walnetta Reid were not only required to return to New Iberia City Court in May, they were each required to cough up $1500 in cash and $240 in court fees just to leave the courthouse. When the women informed the court they couldn’t pay, they were arrested and taken to jail to await their trial date in May.
And in jail they remained, until a friend back in Dallas — who’d been trying to raise their bail — alerted the media. Mike caught the story on local ABC affiliate KATC. He was struck by the injustice:
Nobody should spend five days in jail over a misdemeanor just because they’re from out of town… That’s not what Iberia Parish is about. We’re going through a lot of painful things right now. There are good people here.
And so he bailed them out and sent them home, promising to represent them pro bono in the case. Something tells me he’s got it in for this prosecutor, and I suspect it’s well deserved.
Not coincidentally, the practice of setting bonds without considering a defendant’s ability to pay is one of the unconstitutional provisions the Justice Department warned states about a few weeks ago. There are lawyers all over the country fighting against these practices, and it’s time they got some help from the federal government.
It’s easy to find compassionate lawyers in the legal aid field or among those working to free the wrongly convicted. Small-town solo practitioners may be just as generous, but they aren’t known for it. What Mike Moity did for Tristen Ellis and Walnetta Reid could make you think differently about that.