Legislators want more changes to mayor’s bond proposal

Jan. 23, 2013 @ 05:54 PM

An already watered-down proposal from Mayor Bill Bell for bail restrictions in gun-crime cases received further dilution Wednesday from the Durham legislators who have to sponsor it in the N.C. General Assembly.

State Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, and his colleagues told city officials that, unlike the mayor, they want magistrates to retain their authority to set bond in gun cases.

They also said they don’t want misdemeanors counting against a defendant under the city’s proposal to establish a “rebuttable presumption” in gun cases against releasing those who already have a recent gun-related conviction on their record.

Michaux took the lead Wednesday in requesting those changes to the city proposal, which had long ago dropped Bell’s idea of a $300,000 minimum bond in gun-related cases.

But another key legislator, House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, signaled that he’s dubious of the entire idea.

“I just have some serious concerns about this,” particularly on equal-protection-of-the-law grounds, Hall said during the Durham delegation’s annual breakfast meeting with the City Council.

Hall said the restrictions promise to give Durham’s court system more work at the same time local officials are complaining it’s understaffed. He also questioned whether the proposal would actually “send a message” to criminals, as the mayor has argued.

Bell acquiesced in the changes Wednesday, even as he defended his push for legislation.

“This community would be supportive of this type of effort,” Bell said. “The thing I hear constantly as I move across this community is the issue of crime. Whether you call it ‘sending a message,’ people in our system understand it. They understand it well.”

The mayor floated the original proposal for a $300,000 minimum bond last year, during a state-of-the-city speech he delivered only a couple days after a shooting incident in a downtown parking deck.

Judges and defense lawyers immediately questioned whether so high a minimum would run afoul of the prohibitions in both federal and state constitutions against excessive bail.

At Michaux’s urging, city officials last year retreated and embraced the rebuttable-presumption approach.

Borrowing from existing law that deals with drug trafficking and street gangs, they suggested raising the bar for setting bond in gun cases for two types of defendants: those already with a gun-related conviction in the past five years, and those accused of a second offense while already on pre-trial release in a gun case.

The “rebuttable” part means it would be up to defendants to convince a judge they would show up in court and wouldn’t be a danger to the community. Otherwise, they would have to remain in jail.

The city’s reworked proposal also would have reserved the decision for judges, by removing magistrates’ authority over the affected cases.

By way of a question or two to City Attorney Patrick Baker, Michaux noted that the city proposal as drafted would have counted against the five-year limit even a conviction for violating the local ban on discharging a firearm in the city limits.

But it wouldn’t affect a person lacking a prior record who’s been arrested and charged with killing people, Michaux said.

That sort of logical inconsistency is “a problem” curable by limiting the prior-record clause to felonies, he added.

Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey attended Wednesday’s meeting and signaled that she agreed with Michaux.

Under the logic of the city’s proposal, it was possible to create a no-bond presumption for people accused of violations of the city code that wouldn’t “even give them active jail time” following a second conviction, she said.