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A Lane County Judge dismissed a case with implications for class discrimination

Lane County

A Lane County Circuit Court Judge last month dismissed a case on grounds the District Attorney’s Office violated the rights of an individual based on their class.

On June 24 Laurence Nightingale was apprehended following an incident at a Eugene marijuana dispensary where Nightingale’s former girlfriend accused Nightingale of chasing her into the store with a gun. Nightingale has disputed this claim and said he was attempting to retrieve his vehicle and did not have a gun but that he was holding a cell phone.

Nightingale was arrested by the Eugene Police Department and charged with menacing constituting domestic violence, possession of cocaine, and harassment constituting domestic violence.

Nightingale was also charged in a second case for assault in the fourth degree and coercion, both constituting domestic violence.

According to court documents, employees of the dispensary phoned a Springfield Police detective who had been looking at Nightingale in a year-long investigation for allegedly dealing methamphetamine near a school and for domestic violence.

Nightingale has maintained that he’s innocent of all charges.

His security was initially set to $115,000. He needed 10 percent, or $11,500 to be released, but his family couldn’t afford it.

“One of the first things that I do with any client who’s in custody is we talk about how that person might get out of custody because as you can imagine people don’t like to be in jail especially on charges they are presumed innocent of, or are in fact innocent of,” said Caitlin Plummer, a public defender assigned to Nightingale’s case.

Plummer and Nightingale decided to file a motion to completely eliminate Nightingale’s security, or bail. What transpired next was a string of events, or emails, that a judge later found infringed upon Nightingale’s rights because of his socioeconomic status.

“The practice in this county is that you have to get the position of the other party before you file a motion...we do that all the time and it sort of just turned into something more than that,” Plummer said.

Plummer sent the request via email to Lane County Deputy District Attorney Dan Higgins, the prosecutor. In response, Higgins opposed the motion because of the severity of Nightingale's criminal history and because of the extent of his alleged charges.

He also mentioned a search warrant for Nightingale's residence was underway and that additional charges would be added.

“The prosecutor already seemed to know everything there was to know initially about Mr. Nightingale’s case,” Brook Reinhard said. This included charges in the case involving SPD. Reinhard was assigned to Nightingale's case along with Plummer.

“So to threaten other charges after there had already been a year long investigation there didn't seem to be any valid reason for it, and the only reason we could think of was that the prosecutor was punishing us for asking for this defendant’s release,” Reinhard said.

Plummer added that this was something that struck her as unfair and was a situation that only people without money to afford their bail would find themselves in.

Nightingale was indicted on July 16 and faced four additional charges. His security was set to $240,000, more than twice the amount of his initial bail. The two cases against Nightingale were also consolidated into one.

Nightingale was given a plea offer by the District Attorney’s Office on July 27 but declined. The offer would have had Nightingale pleading guilty to a Class A felony, one of the four additional charges, and accepting a prison sentence for Delivery of Methamphetamine Within 1,000 Feet of a School.

“There’s just something in me telling me like I can’t see myself just saying 'I did something, and put it on my record' just to get out of jail,” Nightingale said.

On Oct. 11, Circuit Court Judge Jay McAplin dismissed the case stating the prosecutor’s decision to “increase the number of charges and expand the defendants criminal liability was the result of an indigent Oregonian seeking to exercise the right to a hearing.”

The judge determined Higgens violated Article 1, section 20 of the Oregon Constitution.

Although Higgens had denied he was discriminating against Nightingale based on his class in an email responding to Plummer’s request, Judge McAplin wrote:

“The violation occurred, not because DDA Higgins had discriminatory intent, but because he failed to recognize that defendant’s financial status placed him in circumstances that were different than circumstances faced by other, more financially secure, Oregonians under the same or similar circumstances facing defendant.”

“I was scared as hell,” Nightingale said, ”I was stressing over that..I was really stressing over that.”

While the dismissal of Nightingale’s case centered on the status of his economic class, he said he believed his race played a role in his arrest and treatment by the criminal justice system.

“I think people of color out here, whether they say it or not, like I think that [the legal system] just assumes you’re guilty before, instead of being innocent ‘til proven guilty, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” he said.

Nightingale has no pending charges against him and was released from custody following the dismissal of his case.

Plummer said this case speaks to the problem of pretrial incarceration.

“The system worked here, but it took too long and it doesn’t work in every case and it took a lot of effort and a lot of time to make that happen,” she said.

Plummer said Nightingale avoided a possible prison sentence for something he’s innocent of. She added that lab results showed Nightingale did not have cocaine on him during his June 24 arrest, and that what was found was not an illegal substance.

“I think we’re at a place in our society where people are really asking, is it right that people should be punished for exercising their constitutional rights, so in this particular case it seemed like a really clear instance where all Mr. Nightingale was asking, can I get out of custody?,” Brook Reinhard said.

Nightingale said he’s relieved to have seen his case dismissed even though he spent two months in jail which meant missing out on a new job opportunity, missing a child custody hearing for his daughter, and risking his Section 8 housing eligibility.

“I really didn’t have a choice, but to fight it,” Nightingale said. “I had to.”

Copyright KLCC 2021