Texas Mothers Jailed Five Days in Louisiana Over Two Hot Dogs

Human Rights

Two Texas mothers with no criminal records spent five days in a notorious Louisiana jail over charges that they ate but did not pay for two hot dogs, milkshakes and an icee at a convenience store. The women were ordered to be held on $1,500 bond each, despite the fact they had just voluntarily driven more than 400 miles from Dallas to show up in court to contest the charges against them.

On Jan. 15, 2016, Walnetta Reid and Tristan Ellis, both 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 that they did go into the store but only to use the 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, C.J. Bible, that 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. They expected their case to go to trial. They planned to show the court their receipt for the soup and explain to the judge that Ellis is a vegan and never eats meat of any kind, much less hot dogs. 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 pleaded 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. Though they had voluntarily driven 400 miles one way to appear in court, and they had no criminal records, the judge ordered each woman to put up $1,500 bail, plus $240 in court fees.

They were told to follow a deputy into the back. The deputy asked if they were ready to bail out. They said they could not afford $1,740 each for bail. The deputy asked if any family members 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.

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 no 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. 

Reid and Ellis were told that unless they bonded out, they would stay in jail until their trial on May 25. They started calling family and friends in Dallas, but no one had $3,400 to bond them out. 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. On Wednesday and Thursday, Bible started calling the prosecutor’s office to ask if she could do something to release them or reduce their bond so they could return home to their children. But there was no reduction.

Bible said, “These women are beloved in our community. For years, they have been helping young people out. Why put loving mothers in jail when they came to court voluntarily? Especially over some hot dogs! I am sure they did not take anyone’s hot dogs, but even if the court believes they did it, they are still innocent till proven guilty. They were being punished before their trial, and I think it was all because they are poor.”

Finally, on Friday, March 18, Bible started reaching out to TV and newspapers in the area. Television station KATC talked with Bible and ran a story Friday afternoon titled, “Dallas Mothers Jailed for Five Days in Iberia Parish over Icees, Hot Dogs.

New Iberia attorney Michael Moity saw the story and decided to help the women out. He put up his own money to bond the women out of jail and volunteered to defend them for free. Moity told KATC, “Nobody should spend five days in jail over a misdemeanor just because they're from out of town.”

The women were finally released from Iberia jail late Friday evening and arrived back in Dallas about 4am Saturday.

Reid said the experience was very hard. “I was praying and praying because I could not figure out why God put me in this situation. I finally decided God put me here to help other people and to tell what happened so it doesn’t happen again.”

The prosecutor, when asked if she had any second thoughts about the way Iberia City Court had treated Reid and Ellis, said no. “There is nothing out of the ordinary in the way these women were treated.”

Presumed Innocent

According to the Marshall Project, more than 450,000 people are in jail awaiting trial every day. Five out of six are there because they could not make bond.

U.S. law is clear that people awaiting trial are presumed innocent. The eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits excessive bail. The U.S. Supreme Court has also made it clear that “liberty is the norm and detention prior to trial is the carefully limited exception" when people are flight risks or a danger to the community.

The American Bar Association says putting people in jail before trial should only be done in the most limited conditions when there has been a hearing showing the person is a flight risk or a danger to the community. Louisiana bonding practices have already been successfully challenged in federal court. Lawsuits have been won across the nation against local governments that hold people in jail awaiting trial just because they are poor.

Both Tristan Ellis and Walnetta Reid plan to return to New Iberia for their trial and expect to be found innocent of the charges.

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