Saturday, April 19, 2008

P.C. Court and the Bond Schedule

As alluded to in some of the comments in my article on Intake, there is also a Probable Cause court open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The job is split amongst five P.C. Judges -- Blanca Villagomez, Frank Aguilar, Ron Nicholas, Jill Wallace, and Eric Hagstette. Between the five of them, the office is always staffed.

Every two to three hours, a docket is called for the recent arrests who have arrived in custody at the Harris County Jail. The inmates all sit on benches over at 49 San Jacinto, while the Judge, a Clerk, a representative of Pre-Trial Services, and a prosecutor are on the first floor of the CJC. The proceedings are done via close-circuit TV, and are taped and kept on file if they need to be reviewed later.
(NOTE: Sometimes some wildly bizarre things happen on those tapes. )

The Judge Presiding reads all the Defendants their rights and then they individually approach the front of the room. The prosecutor then reads the Probable Cause for their arrests to the Court.

Usually, the Judge finds probable cause exists to continue their detention. Sometimes, they ask for more information and ask the prosecutor to get that information by the next docket. And, believe it or not, sometimes, they find no probable cause exists and order the Defendant released from custody.

If Probable Cause is found, the Judge then moves on to the issue of setting a bond. The Judges at Probable Cause are required to follow the "Bond Schedule" set by the District Court Judges.

Here's a general (and very abbreviated) summary of the bond schedule:

On Misdemeanor Cases, the starting bond is either $500 or $1000 (depending if the charge is a Class B or Class A). For every prior conviction, the bond goes up. If the prior conviction is a felony, it goes up $1,000. If the prior conviction is a misdemeanor, it goes up $500. Juvenile convictions don't count. Either way, in the vast vast majority of the cases, the bond "caps" at a maximum of $5,000 on a misdemeanor case.

Felony Cases are much more complicated. A State Jail starts with a base of $2,000. A third degree starts at $5,000. A second degree starts at $10,000. A first degree starts at $20,000. Aggravated offenses (like Aggravated Assault, Aggravated Robbery, or Aggravated Sexual Assault for example) start off at $30,000.
Murders start out at $50,000, and Capital Murders are set at No Bond.
Priors for a misdemeanor case normally have no effect on a bond for a felony case. Prior felony cases will generally bump a bond amount up a degree amount. (For instance, a third degree underlying offense with a prior felony conviction will bump the bond amount up to $10,000).
A State Jail Felony offender with two prior convictions will cap out at $15,000. If a person is charged as a "True Habitual", the bond can be set at No Bond.
People on a felony probation who pick up a new felony charge will also be set at No Bond.

Whew. Did you get all that?! Of course, there are exceptions on all the cases.

Leviathan, members of the Defense Bar, and several D.A. Candidates have discussed the under-utilization of "Pre-Trial Release Bonds".

Basically, to my understanding, under the current system, only Misdemeanor cases with no prior criminal history are eligible for a Pre-Trial Release bond that would not require a Defendant to put up money to be released on bond. There are other factors, of course, like a stable address and references, but those are the cases where the Pre-Trial Release bond is made.

With the exception of Judge Mary Lou Keel, I don't believe that any of the other District Court Judges permit a pre-trial release bond being granted for a felony case during the P.C. Court appearance

Leviathan makes the argument on the Bond Schedule doesn't accurately reflect Art. 17.15 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which lists the legal considerations a Court should consider when setting bond. They are:

1. The bail shall be sufficiently high to give reasonable assurance that the undertaking will be complied with.
2. The power to require bail is not to be so used as to make it an instrument of oppression.
3. The nature of the offense and the circumstances under which it was committed are to be considered.
4. The ability to make bail is to be regarded, and proof may be taken upon this point.
5. The future safety of a victim of the alleged offense and the community shall be considered.

He's right, of course, because a Bond Schedule doesn't take the time to really make those judgment calls during the initial Probable Cause hearing.

But the fact of the matter is that there is no feasible way to do that without a lot of extra-positions across the board - more judges, more prosecutors, more clerks, more pre-trial folks. A Bond Schedule is a guide that, if only theoretically, takes into account the nature of the offense, the criminal history, and the future safety of a victim.

The Intake System and the P.C. Courts are the equivalent of a MASH Unit during combat. Patch it up and get it moved to the appropriate court.

But don't lose heart, just yet.

Once the case arrives in the corresponding court, which is normally the following business day (or the day after that), the bond can be revisited by the presiding Judge in that court. I'm sure there are some judges more willing to revisit a Defendant's bonds than others, but I will leave that to the Commenters to address.

This article is already longer than I usually write, and I haven't been able to include a large amount of the other surrounding issues (like MOEPs, etc.), so feel free to throw out some other ideas to discuss about P.C. Court and Bonds.

2 comments:

Ron in Houston said...

AHCL

Kudos for another great post. I think you're doing a valuable public service with these posts.

Leviathan said...

Pretty good summary.

Lost aomewhere in the previous discussion is that the bail schedule, which permits a defendant to post bond as soon as he/she is officially charged (i.e., DA intake is completed and the court and cause number are assigned by the District Clerk's Office), does not necessarily serve the interests of public safety. It allows rapid release without bail review for those who have resources, regardless of whether such rapid release without review is a good idea.