On December 8, 2023, Vanguard reported that a Loyola Law School professor had filed a complaint against Judge Tomson Ong. Professor Priscilla Ocen had observed Judge Ong setting cash bail at arraignment hearings without considering the defendants’ ability to pay, in violation of a precedent-setting 2018 California Supreme Court ruling.
According to the report, Ocen alerted Presiding Judge Samantha Jessner of the Los Angeles County Superior Court in November about a “pattern of serious misconduct” by Judge Ong. In her complaint, Ocen said Judge Ong routinely failed to inquire about whether defendants could afford to pay bail when setting bail amounts. She cited a memo by the legal nonprofit Civil Rights Corps that also documented improper bail rulings by Judge Ong in other cases.
The 2018 California Supreme Court case, In Re Humphrey, reformed cash bail practices in California by finding it unconstitutional to keep poor defendants in jail pre-trial simply due to an inability to pay bail. However, a 2022 UCLA study found bail amounts and average pre-trial detention lengths had not decreased since the ruling. Ocen’s complaint highlighted this ongoing problem of judges not following the law as it pertains to considering a defendant’s financial circumstances.
Civil Rights Corps analyzed 11 of Judge Ong’s arraignment hearings and said he imposed cash bail without mentioning the defendant’s ability to pay in 10 of them, in violation of the Humphrey case. At one hearing, Judge Ong acknowledged to a CRC attorney that “I don’t know the resources” defendants have to post bail.
The complaint cited one case where Judge Ong ordered a 50-year-old woman arrested in the courtroom on failure to appear charges despite no prior missed court dates. When the public defender argued she could attend future hearings without bail, Judge Ong imposed bail citing the schedule and calling her a “flight risk” without assessing her ability to pay. When the woman tried to speak, Judge Ong asserted her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.
Ocen argued in her complaint that judges cannot legally keep defendants in jail pre-trial just because they cannot afford bail. She asked Presiding Judge Jessner to remove Judge Ong from arraignments, investigate practices across LA County courts, and collaborate on trainings to ensure compliance with constitutional rights. As of early December, Judge Jessner had not responded to the complaint after 40 days, according to the Civil Rights Corps.