Durham judges differ on plan for tougher rules in gun cases

Mayor Bill Bell’s plan seeks tougher rules for bail in gun cases

jwise@newsobserver.comJanuary 8, 2013 

  • What’s next Mayor Bill Bell presents his proposed bail bond legislation to the Durham Crime Cabinet on Friday. The Crime Cabinet meets in the County Commissioners’ chamber, 200 E. Main St., at noon. Bell’s presentation is scheduled for 12:45. The agenda also includes a separate legislative proposal on firearm offenses and a report from the district probation office. The meeting is open to the public.

Mayor Bill Bell has compromised on his proposal for tougher bail rules in some gun-crime cases, but Durham’s two chief judges still have reservations.

Their reservations, though, are not the same.

Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey is concerned that the draft legislation restricts judicial discretion.

That point does not worry Chief Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, but he doesn’t know what may happen once Bell’s proposal goes into the General Assembly.

“When you submit that bill to the legislature what comes out for the whole state may be different from what the mayor believed he was submitting,” Hudson said.

Bell presents his proposal for comment at the Durham Crime Cabinet meeting Friday.

The Crime Cabinet is made up of city, county, judicial and law-enforcement officials who meet every other month to exchange information and ideas.

The mayor wants to amend state law on the right to pretrial release ( bit.ly/TEFrqI) by removing magistrates’ authority to approve bail and requiring suspects to convince a judge that bail is sufficient to guarantee their appearance in court if:

• The suspect was arrested for a firearm-involved offense while already on pretrial release for another gun-related offense; or

• The suspect has been convicted of a firearm offense or been released for the offense within the past five years.

“If we have a mandatory (standard that in) every single case across the state, every judge has to follow – no magistrate can set bond – it ties the hands of the system,” Morey said.

“I have concerns about judges losing discretion or magistrates, as every case is different and there’s a presumption of innocence for anyone charged,” she said.

‘Good compromise’

A year ago, to reduce the number of firearm crimes and to keep firearm offenders off the streets, Bell suggested setting minimum bail for gun-crime suspects, including first-time suspects, at $300,000.

The current maximum is $75,000. City Attorney Patrick Baker drafted an ordinance to put Bell’s suggestions into law.

Hudson and other judicial authorities responded that Durham’s bail-bond guidelines were already high compared with the rest of North Carolina, pointing out that pretrial release is, with some exceptions, a constitutional right and that suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

At the suggestion of state Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux, Bell and Baker switched approach to amending the existing state law, taking the judges’ opinions into account.

Michaux has said he would submit such a bill to the legislature during its session this year.

“I think it’s a good compromise,” said Hudson. “What I’ve told the mayor is ... if the legislature comes back with a reasonable deal, that I will recommend to our judges that we follow it and give it a chance to see how it works.”

Morey said Bell’s conditions could be incorporated into Durham’s bail-bond guidelines, but sees trouble ahead if they are made law.

“To have a mandatory no-bond hold on someone in some cases just could be draconian,” she said. “It’s like, well, what’s the next series of offenses that we’re going to do the same thing? Should we do that for driving while impaired cases? Should we do that for abuse or sex-abuse cases?”

Curiously, though, North Carolina already imposes a “no-bond hold” in domestic violence situations, she said.

“Even if it’s a shove or a push or someone has no record,” Morey said. “We get calls from magistrates frequently, saying someone has come down and the victim has come and said, ‘I don’t want this person, my husband, arrested, it was a misunderstanding, I wasn’t hurt.’

“However, it’s domestic violence, it’s assault on a female and there’s a presumptive no bond until they go before a judge in 48 hours,” she said. “So you compare the lack of severity in some of those cases with the severity of a gun crime and – it’s interesting.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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