Crime Cabinet endorses mayor’s bail proposal

Jan. 11, 2013 @ 07:09 PM

Mayor Bill Bell’s push for tighter bail-bond requirements in some gun cases picked up an endorsement Friday from the Durham Crime Cabinet.

The joint advisory group supported the proposal by a vote of 8-0, with four abstentions. Supporters included city Police Chief Jose Lopez, Durham County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Don Ladd, County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and City Councilman Eugene Brown.

“You can’t have a great city unless you first and foremost have a safe city,” Brown said. “This is a step forward.”

The abstentions came from Chief District Judge Marcia Morey, Criminal Justice Resource Center Director Gudrun Parmer, bail bondsman Omar Beasley and Partners Against Crime District 3 activist Patricia Burchett.

As drafted, Bell’s proposal would instruct judges across the state that there’s a “rebuttable presumption” that no bail is low enough to ensure court appearances or community safety in two classes of firearms-related cases.

The test would apply to persons already on pre-trial release for other firearms-related charges, or to those convicted in the previous five years of a firearms-related offense.

Judges would retain their power to set bonds in such cases, provided they find a person likely to appear in court and that their release constitutes no threat. Magistrate would lose their authority in the affected cases.

Bell and City Attorney Patrick Baker briefed committee members on the proposal, conceding they’d watered down the mayor’s call early in 2012 for a minimum $300,000 bond in firearms cases.

The proposal, which has to be approved by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory, “is not a cure-all for preventing violent crimes committed with firearms” but should provide “a cooling-off period” in relevant cases and address the criminal-justice system’s “revolving-door syndrome,” Bell said.

“I don’t think it takes away anyone’s rights,” Bell added, alluding to complaints about the original proposal from defense attorneys and judges. “It’s very targeted and it sends another message, at least from Durham, that we aren’t going to tolerate crimes that are committed with guns.”

 Reckhow and Brown said Bell moved in the right direction last year after state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, declined to support the original proposal.

“I’ve watched this evolve and I think you’ve landed in a good place,” Reckhow told the mayor. “This looks positive and the targeting seems appropriate, really dealing with the frequent fliers, the people who’ve already committed a firearms offense in the recent past.”

Morey, however, said the wording of the bill counsels judges against allowing bail in firearms cases at all.

“I’m worried if I don’t meet these two prongs, I can’t set a bond and they will remain under no bond, which will challenge the constitutional issues” embedded in the Bill of Rights, she said.

Amanda Maris, an assistant public defender who attended Friday’s meeting, agreed and noted that firearms offenses can vary widely in severity.

“It is problematic that this may result in people not having a bond set at all,” she said, alluding to the Constitution’s prohibition against excessive bail. Maris added that she was not speaking for the public defender’s office, which is headed by Lawrence Campbell.

Reckhow said that because of the Crime Cabinet endorsement, she and other officials will ask County Commissioners to support the mayor’s proposal.

The City Council already has, signing on last Monday over a dissent from Councilman Steve Schewel.

He said judges in Durham are “already attuned to the problem” the bill is trying to address and added that he prefers channeling all firearms cases through the pre-trial screening process run by Parmer’s office.

Its researches the background of some defendants and relays its findings to judges for use in setting bond conditions.

Schewel also noted that the Constitution forbids using bail as punishment “because guilt or innocence has not been established” so early in the process.