Jeffrey Pendleton: Homeless activist dies in jail after failing to pay $100 bail on a misdemeanor marijuana charge

Photo: Courtesy of ACLU of NH

A homeless man remembered for his advocacy on behalf of the indigent died in a Manchester, New Hampshire, jail cell last month, after he was remanded into custody for failing to post $100 bail on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession.

Jeffrey Pendleton, 26, was found unresponsive in his cell at Valley Street Jail on Sunday, March 13, after four days of imprisonment. Jail superintendent David Dionne told the Union Leader that Pendleton did not appear to be in distress when discovered by prison guards, who made unsuccessful attempts to revive him.

The deputy medical examiner told the paper she found “no evidence of any natural disease” nor “evidence of trauma,” but that the cause of his death remained inconclusive. The results of additional tests, including a toxicology report, can take weeks and were still pending by the time of publication.

Pendleton’s family, based in Arkansas, have said they feel they are “getting the runaround” from officials, pointing to a lack of information from the medical examiner’s office.

The family also points to an observation made by a coroner involved in the young man’s memorial service, who told the family he noticed marks resembling a “rope line” on Pendleton’s neck.

“We still haven’t heard any new information about our brother’s death,” Melanie Boles, Pendleton’s eldest sister, told the Nashua Telegraph earlier this month. “We’re trying to get the results of his autopsy report, but we’re still waiting.”

Pendleton made headlines in 2015 after waging two successful battles alongside the ACLU of New Hampshire on behalf of the civil liberties of the homeless.

“Jeff was a kind person,” the group’s legal director Gilles Bissonnette said. “Though Jeff was poor, he took it upon himself to be an ACLU client in two important cases…He became a plaintiff in these cases not because he thought he would be compensated, but because he believed that these cases could bring relief to other poor people…He truly cared about how these cases could potentially change police practices in the future, and it was an honor to represent him.”

The first case, against the town of Hudson, involved a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of Pendleton, alleging police officers there illegally harassed peaceful panhandlers. The lawsuit documents 18 instances in which officers told those soliciting for donations that panhandling is illegal in the town, though no such law existed on the books.

Hudson agreed to pay Pendleton $7,640, be subject to a permanent consent order protecting his right to peacefully solicit for donations, and to conduct further police training on the issue.

In another, Pendleton was named in a claim against the town of Nashua, after he spent 33 days in jail for failing to make bail on trespassing charges. He was arrested for using a walk path on the property of the town’s library, who gave the man a “no trespass” order a month before.

Between July 28, 2012 and July 28, 2014, the Nashua Police Department issued at least 30 such verbal no-trespass orders governing both the library and the adjacent library park space, according to an ACLU of New Hampshire report.

Ultimately, the city decided to pay $10,315 to settle Pendleton’s claim.

Bissonnette noted that there was a sick irony that his former client — dedicated to fighting arbitrary detentions of the poor in his final years — died while remanded on $100 bail for a misdemeanor marijuana charge.

“It looks like Jeff would have stayed in jail until his next court date on April 7,” Bissonnette said. “That’s approximately one month.  At that point, he would have effectively served his sentence before he ever had an opportunity to contest the charge – an outcome that only a poor person would be confronted with. Undoubtedly, at the pretrial conference on April 7, he would then have been offered a ‘time served’ sentence if he pled guilty.

“Jeff’s experience with the criminal justice system highlights the growing criminalization of poverty,” ACLU of New Hampshire’s legal director Gilles Bissonnette said. “Whether it is excessive bail, jailing people who cannot pay fines, banning panhandling, or prosecuting possession of marijuana in small amounts—all harm poor communities.”

Pendleton was later buried in his home state of Arkansas in late March. The family set up a GoFundMe to help raise $7,000 to help cover the costs of burial and transportation and so far raised just under $4,000.

Those interested can donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/x9ueu2mc.

Chris Caesar is a freelance writer based in Malden. His work has appeared in Boston.com, Metro, Death & Taxes, Muckrock, The Portsmouth Herald and more. Say "hi" on Twitter: @ChrisCaesar.

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