Durham seeks tougher bail law

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 1, 2013 

— Carrying on a campaign Mayor Bill Bell began a year ago, the City Council will ask Durham legislators to push for tougher bail-bond rules for some suspects in crimes involving firearms.

Under proposed legislation drafted by the city administration, magistrates could order some suspects held without bail if they have been previously convicted of firearms offenses or arrested on firearms charges. A judge, though, could grant bail at the suspect’s first-appearance hearing.

The bill, which would apply statewide, is part of a legislative agenda for Durham’s General Assembly delegation and is still under review by city, county and judicial authorities.

City Council member Steve Schewel has already said he’s against it.

“I really believe that this should be up to judicial discretion, and we should not offer the legislature the opportunity to make these bail decisions,” Schewel said in December.

Bell said the proposal still leaves the final decision on bail up to a judge, and City Attorney Patrick Baker said the rule changes would only “raise the bar ... for these habitual individuals that we keep seeing doing the same things with the same weapons over and over again.”

The rules are drafted ( bit.ly/VDHx6x) as an amendment to the state statute on right to pretrial release. They specify conditions under which bail is assumed to be inadequate to guarantee a suspect’s appearance in court. In such cases, the suspect would have to convince a judge otherwise before bail could be approved.

Those conditions are:

• There is reasonable cause to believe that the person committed an offense involving the illegal use, possession or discharge of a firearm, and the offense was committed while the person was on pretrial release for another gun-related offense.

• Or, the person has been previously convicted of an offense involving the illegal use, possession or discharge of a firearm, and not more than five years has elapsed since the date of conviction or the person’s release for the offense, whichever is later.

For a suspect, Baker said, the amendment poses the question, “Why should you be on any pretrial release now, given the fact that the reason you’re before (a judge) now is you may have been on pretrial release and committed another offense?”

A compromise

In January 2012, Bell said he wanted bail increased for firearms offenses, including first-time offenders. In his State of the City speech in February, he suggested $300,000 as a minimum figure, up from the current maximum of $75,000 for illegally firing a gun in the city.

Baker said that met “considerable pushback” from judges.

“It was clear they really struggled with this idea of identifying a number. The mayor and I heard that loud and clear. ... This is a compromise that provides that flexibility that I think the judges wanted,” he said.

Bell said the proposal was drawn up after consulting with state Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, senior member of the Durham delegation, and is supported by the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.

Schewel said the proposal is “is really quite watered down from what (Bell) originally proposed,” and amounts to no more than “a tightly defined bump” when Durham should be leading the state in devising “real and significant” measures against gun violence.

He was also concerned about what could become of the proposal once it is introduced in the General Assembly.

“It’s going to be taken up by people that don’t understand Durham, that will have a different agenda than we do, and might make it into something much bigger and something damaging,” Schewel said.

While the bill, if approved, would become state law, Bell said it is meant to address the perceived “revolving door syndrome” in Durham, with offenders repeatedly arrested and bonded out of jail only to be arrested again for similar crimes.

“This is much needed,” said Councilman Eugene Brown. “Too often it seems our judicial system has become a catch-and-release system. ... Something has to be done and I think this proposed legislation is a step in the right direction.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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