LSA Wins at the Eleventh Circuit for a core American value: Innocent until proven guilty

Team members who led the case (From L-R): Farah Majid, Staff Attorney, Huntsville; Michael Forton, Director of Advocacy; and Laurie McFalls, Staff Attorney, Huntsville. Majid and McFalls are members of LSA's High Impact Litigation Unit.
(Photo courtesy: Huntsville Office)

In every criminal trial, judges instruct juries that indictments are not evidence; an indictment alone is insufficient to deprive an individual of liberty or property. (An indictment without more is not enough to deny bail or sustain pretrial forfeiture of property.)  To make an indictment unsupported by other proof a basis for terminating a vital benefit, is a fundamental unfairness that has no comparison in our legal system, and upends the proposition that one is innocent until proven guilty.

In December 2015, LSA filed a federal lawsuit against the Decatur Housing Authority alleging that taking our client's housing benefits on the basis of an indictment alone violates the constitutional right of due process. When we lost in federal district court, LSA filed an appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments in this case were held in September.

On October 3, 2018, the Court of Appeals issued a decision overturning the federal district court and recognizing that our client’s rights had been violated. In its decision the court stated repeatedly that indictments, which only indicate there is probable cause to believe that someone may have committed a crime, are insufficient evidence in a hearing that they did commit the crime. Put more plainly – mere accusations (without witnesses, pictures or anything to support them) are not enough to prove someone did something.

This decision is a huge victory for tenants who receive federal housing benefits. Voucher revocation hearings are meant to be independent factual contests and not rubber stamps for a criminal justice process where charges do end up being dismissed (which as our client testified, did eventually happen here) and are often based on unsubstantiated hearsay.

Our team in this case is led by our Advocacy Director Michael Forton and two members of our High Impact Litigation Unit, Farah Majid and Laurie McFalls.

By Michael Forton, Director of Advocacy

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    LSA is a grantee of the Legal Services Corporation.